If you spent Sunday as I did, basking in glorious sun on Cross Campus, you might have heard, undercutting the laughing conversations and whirring Frisbees, another sound. Names — hundreds of names, read in a steady monotone, hung on the breeze. Over the course of six hours, in half-hour shifts, two students sat at a small table outside of Calhoun, reading from a list that stretched across several thick packets.
Four of my great-grandparents are somewhere on that list, including the Samuel Lasman in whose memory I was named. I am only here because my father’s parents, defying the Nazis’ inhumanity, survived. It has been 65 years, almost to the day, since Allied forces liberated the camps where they were imprisoned. On Yom HaShoah — this past Monday — we light candles, observe silence, and remember both loss and regeneration.
Every Passover, after his usual truncated seder and before we tuck into the charoset, my dad links the deliverance of our Biblical ancestors from Egypt to the deliverance of my grandparents from the death camps. And then he admonishes my brother and me: You are the last generation who will know survivors. In a few decades, the obligation to reject and refute all claims of exaggeration and mythmaking, so much more virulent once living proof is gone, will be yours.
In America, our collective memory has already begun to falter. An acquaintance of my mother currently researching the Holocaust visited a high school near where I live outside of Boston. To her shock, many of the students there knew next to nothing about the Holocaust — during which war it occurred, who its perpetrators were, the scale of the atrocity. When she confronted a history teacher, she was told it “hadn’t yet come up on the syllabus.” Massachusetts has the third-highest percentage of Jewish residents of any state in the country. I dread to think what the situation is like elsewhere.
Nina Beizer ’12, one of the name-readers on Cross Campus, ended up speaking with a visiting Italian family who stopped by the table. They talked about the dangers of forgetting, how already in Europe, many in the younger generations seem to be turning once more to extremism and xenophobia — witness the round of anti-Romani incidents throughout Italy, beginning in 2008. They talked about the need for making Holocaust remembrance a communal responsibility, rather than an insular event by and for Jews only; after all, the Jews were not by any means the sole victims of Nazi persecution. If “never again” is to hold true, then our generation must accept the burden of memory and all that entails.
That makes it our responsibility to fight all distortion and all politicization of an event that no one can ever be allowed to co-opt or explain away. The Holocaust can never be justified.
At the same time, it cannot be appropriated; it is not a pretext, an excuse, an explanation. It is not a reason to posit, as a classmate of mine did with shocking ignorance and insensitivity, that the Jewish homeland should have been carved out of Poland and Germany, the site of the genocide. Nor is it a reason for free speech to be curtailed or for “anti-Semitism” to be thrown about as a synonym for legitimate dissent and human rights work. The Nazis relied on ignorance, lies, censorship and violence to accomplish their abominations. The responsibility of remembering requires struggling against means as well as ends.
That means taking notice when a Hungarian party that emulates the notorious Arrow Cross Party, responsible for the murder of some hundred thousand Hungarian Jews during the Second World War, wins 16.7 percent of the vote in the country’s latest parliamentary elections. But it also means taking notice when Israeli bookstores refuse to stock a book that criticizes the expansion of settlements, and when the Israeli military signs an order that could allow the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank.
Sixty-five years after the liberation of the camps, it seems only natural that our memory should fade and our vigilance should slacken. It is too easy to consign the events of the Holocaust to history. But to do so would be to risk losing sight of its lingering presence in our world.
As long as Vatican priests compare criticism the Church’s abuse record to anti-Semitism; as long as antiracism activists are murdered in Russia; as long artists cannot present theater pieces about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus without facing threats from the Yale community, we are obligated to accept the challenge of remembering.
That is our burden, and our gift.
Sam Lasman is a sophomore in Berkeley College.