By Liam Hoare
In the most important European Jewish novel published last year, J, the British writer Howard Jacobson imagined a dystopian future in which, amongst other things, human energy is dedicated to forgetting a catastrophe that removed the Other entirely from society. “To still be harping on about WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, as it though it happened, if it happened, yesterday, is to sap the country of its essential life force,” one of the characters says. “The past exists in order that we forget it.”
J speaks to an anxiety about memory, how to tend to it, and what becomes of us when we neglect the past. “What’s too much memory? ‘If you could lick my heart, it would poison you,’ someone says in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and that’s what remembering does. You can over-remember and you can under-remember, and it’s a burden you have to go on balancing,” Jacobson told me when I spoke to him about J following its publication. Jews, he proposed, “are a people of memory” made by the Holocaust “so we must go on remembering.”
Indeed we must, not only European Jews, but all the peoples of Europe. After all, the European Union, and by extension the contemporary conception of what it means to be a citizen of Europe, exists because of the Holocaust. Europe is built upon the ashes of the Holocaust and it therefore forever tied to the midnight of our century. It ought to be impossible to be a European citizen without sensitivity and a comprehension of the Holocaust, without the knowledge that this tragedy is our responsibility and our shame.
But today we are faced with a crisis, the effects of which are difficult to mitigate. For, as Europe becomes more removed from the Holocaust, as the anniversaries collect one after the other, the event becomes more abstract, less visceral, less real. The images fade and the voices dim. The lessons of the Holocaust begin to lose their muscle and their urgency. And, it becomes easier to say the most awful things about the Holocaust – about denial and victimhood – when the events are no longer imbued with the same meaning.
In November 2013, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights published a groundbreaking survey on experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism across Europe. It found that 82 percent of European Jews had heard a non-Jewish person say at least once that Israelis behave “like Nazis” towards the Palestinians, 71 percent that Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes, and 57 percent that the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated. This could mean that they saw it written on the Internet, which is one thing, but equally it could mean they heard it in a social situation, at work, or on the street.
The panic about this socio-cultural trend in Europe – essentially, the weakening of memory – has been palpable since 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Second World War. It was in this year that Holocaust Remembrance Day because institutionalized in Europe. On this day, in addition to official acts of commemoration, schools across Europe give instruction in the Holocaust and acts of genocide and crimes against humanity more generally as to “promote prevention, understanding, tolerance, and friendship between nations, races and religions.”
In 2005, world leaders would also come to Auschwitz to memorialize the dead, while the BBC commissioned a substantial history of the Final Solution that continues to be used in British schools. There was, at that time, the overwhelming sense that this anniversary had to be commemorated in a way that was different to all others as, by 2015, the number of survivors present to participate and recollect would be severely diminished. Now, ten years on and up to the seventieth anniversary of the liberation, Europe is convulsing again.
The weakening of memory in Europe is not necessarily an internal challenge for the Jewish communities of Europe. Awareness of the Holocaust is a generational inheritance and has become inseparable from Diaspora Jewish identity. Rather, European Jews are part of Europe’s broader challenge. Hitherto, it has been the work of survivors of the Holocaust to transmit their stories to the wider public as a means of keeping the memory of the catastrophe going. With the generation of survivors shrunken, however, the question becomes how will the story be transmitted.
It is that question which to some extent explains the proliferation of Holocaust museums and, more broadly, the museumification of Jewish life in Europe. At the same time as the traces of Jewish life were being collected and curated in new palaces of memory, memorials to the Holocaust and museums that were nation-specific and oftentimes faced up to the realities of occupation, collaboration, and resistance opened across Europe.
The Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Mémorials de la Shoah in Le Marais and Drancy in Paris. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The Memorial to the Murdered Austrian Jews on Judenplatz in Vienna. The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia in Skopje. All established in the past twenty years, these places are not only focal points of commemoration but exist as tools of education to preserve the story or rather stories few are left to tell. Jewish museums and Holocaust museums are part of the same attempt, too, to anchor the Jewish story within the European story.
Such institutions are essential, as is all commemoration and memorialization of the nadir of European history. But when it comes to awareness and perception of the Holocaust, testimony recounted in the first person is inimitable and irreplaceable. In a report for The Independent, the journalist Richard Garner last year attended a talk by Eve Kugler, an 83-year-old survivor, as she addressed a cinema full of pupils in south London, around the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Afterwards, Garner spoke to the students. “You know in school, you get things from books,” one pupil said. “When Eve was talking, you got the real story.” Another proffered, “It was almost like a history lesson brought to life. You hear stories in class and you don’t really understand them – it gives you a different outlook on the situation.”
Kugler told Garner, “I do hope that they will remember what they heard and saw here and that they will talk about it with their friends. I would like them to understand that people are people and there is no reason why one group, because they look different or have a different religion, should be treated in this way. People are people – it sounds trite but that’s essentially what the message is.”
“Those who witnessed Eve Kugler’s talk are sure they will not [forget],” Garner reported. But how sure can we be? With each Holocaust Remembrance Day that passes, as the years drift by and Europe finds itself further and further away from the catastrophe and its zero hour, there cannot help but be doubts about the future, concern that the past will indeed exist only for us to forget it. How do European Jews and Europe itself sustain the memory when there’s no-one around who remembers? What do we do with the stories when there’s no-one left to tell them? Who will wish to light a candle if there’s nobody there to see it?