Column: Born in flames, condemned to remember
By Andrew Cohen, Citizen Special, July 19, 2011
On Sunday, a wildfire ignited the dry, forested hills around Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust. It filled the afternoon sky with ash and smoke.
There was worry here that it might reach the campus – the museum, gallery, library, archive and school – which sits on 45 ochre acres in the Jerusalem Hills. It didn’t. But oh, the awful irony that the very ground dedicated to remembering the great fire – and the six million Jews it engulfed – could itself by consumed by flames.
Irony, of course, is everywhere at Yad Vashem, which was established by Israel in 1953. Its purpose is to remember the Jews in the land of the Jews who were supposed to be extinguished in Hitler’s Final Solution.
In those days, we weren’t discussing the Holocaust in North America the way they were in Israel, where today some 700,000 to 800,000 are survivors of the Holocaust or children or grandchildren of survivors.
No wonder they famously say the soul of Israel is Yad Vashem. When you’re born in flames, memory is identity. It’s inseparable. You are because you are, against the odds.
Memory matters to all societies, but particularly here. In Canada, we take it lightly; we remember correctly and selectively, especially when it comes to the founding races and the first peoples and who did what to whom. It’s why our national museum won’t address sensitive questions like the Conquest of Quebec.
We get by without an adult conversation about our past. We muddle through as amnesiacs. Ambiguity is us.
Not so in other places. In Germany, they face up to the Nazis. In the United States, they confront slavery and segregation.
In Japan, by contrast, they prefer to deny the Rape of Nanking and the comfort women of Korea. In Russia, they don’t like to discuss Stalin’s purges or the Ukrainian Famine.
Of course, it’s easier for the victims to remember than the perpetrators. Yad Vashem is a monument to memory. The war recedes and the survivors die. Nonetheless, the Holocaust remains high in the national consciousness.
It is why no foreign leader visits Israel without visiting the dim, haunting memorial hall at Yad Vashem, which was long its signature. Now it has some 700 employees and a large budget, augmented by worthy organizations like the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.
Nor is it solely commemoration: it is about collection, documentation, exhibition and education. Researchers gather material (138 million pages of documents, 400,000 photographs, 102,000 survivor testimonies.) Curators display it (23,500 artifacts, 8,200 works of art.) Scholars study it (they have identified, by name, four million of the dead.) Archivists organize it, teachers teach it.
Two generations later, we are still learning about the Holocaust. Historians tell us, for example, that not all Germans “obeyed orders” when told to murder Jews, and some went unpunished for refusing. We know more about what the Allies knew and when, why neighbours turned on Jews, why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed, how Jews in captivity documented the tragedy and resisted it. We have found more “Righteous among the Nations” (another 449 in 2010), gentiles who saved and sheltered Jews.
The museum is deeply affecting. It’s designed by Moshe Safdie, who has created a stark dominion of bare concrete walls and conical forms, from which there is no easy escape.
Like other Holocaust museums, such as the one in Washington, it tells the story of the Shoah through the eyes of its victims, including the Roma. And while it doesn’t take risks in its presentation, it doesn’t judge Jews in extremis, either.
Everywhere there are stories of a choiceless world occasionally honeyed by fortune and caprice. There is Mordechai Rumkowski, the bombastic leader of the Lodz ghetto, trading some lives to save others. Or, the starving son who gave his dying father his only crust of bread because that was the way “I was raised.” When he returned to find his father and the bread gone, he decided: “I would never be moral again.”
It is curious to watch people in this museum, particularly throngs of young khaki-clad Israeli soldiers. Some are distracted, of course, but most read and listen with intensity.
The question arises: is it all too much? Has the Holocaust become too much of an industry, spawning museums in places such as a stripmall in Naples, Florida?
Or, as someone asked, is there no business like Shoah business?
Were we to live in a different world, perhaps. It might be that we wouldn’t need Holocaust memorials in Budapest, Bucharest and Berlin, and other places. And we wouldn’t need a legion of Holocaust scholars.
Maybe we could shut the doors and close the books if anti-Semitism were passé or genocide no longer happened in today’s world.
And so we are condemned to wonder and remember the mechanized murder of the Jews in the 20th century. Forever.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org