By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Opinions  | 

On the Hubris of Holocaust Remembrance Day: The Case for Moving On

Amidst the throes of an aborted attempt at returning to our normal quotidian rhythm, during which we must try to come to terms with our modern-day slavery after experiencing the glorious emancipation of our dear Pesach, all must come to a stop: Yom HaShoah, International Holocaust Remembrance Day has arrived.

Over the past few decades, an obscure date in history has become a cornerstone of the Jewish calendar. Along with Yemei Hazikaron and Ha’atzmaut, we have adopted Yom HaShoah not just as a commemoration of a date in history (the start of the Warsaw uprising), but as a solemn holiday, deeply entrenched in meaning, permeated by sacrosanct religious fervor and reverence. For better or worse, our traditional day of mourning, Tisha B’Av has been passed over. By doing so, we have designated the Holocaust as a unique event in our troubled history as a nation. The Holocaust, perhaps owing to its contemporary nature (400,000 survivors still live among us), perhaps due to its horrific modern, industrialized scale, has taken center-stage in our litany of memorials. The destruction of the Batei Mikdash, the annihilation of Beitar, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Chmielnicki Revolt, etc. have seemingly taken a back seat to the Holocaust, and while I can naturally sympathize with what might drive such a response (I, too, lost family, know survivors, etc.), I cannot say that I wholly agree. What sinister motives lie behind this seemingly benign phenomenon may surprise you.

[Before I begin—a disclaimer: When approaching such a topic, one must do so in fear and disbelief. I cannot and will not partake in discussions surrounding the theodicy of the Holocaust and the horrible trauma that affects us till this day, however, I have taken the liberty of attempting to analyze our response to such a tragedy. I dare not endeavor to explain what happened, but I cannot consent to staying quiet when I believe that the memory of the millions of my murdered brethren is being manipulated and abused.]

I, like many of my peers, did not participate in my Yeshiva’s trip to Poland. I did not see the need in reawakening in my psyche deep feelings of loss and trauma which I had experienced from afar, in the bosom of Western progress. Growing up in New York, I did not know much of the Holocaust. My family escaped Europe decades before anyone could imagine such a horror taking place. I was lucky. My grandparents did not carry scars, nor tattoos, from the old country. They did not suffer like so many of their brethren (and cousins). My family, while suffering with all of the Jewish people, was largely spared. I did not grow up hearing stories of loss and destruction, nor did I grow up with the knowledge of the splendor and vivacity of what was lost. I did not know of the ghetto, nor of the shtetl. As a whole, I have lived a thoroughly Americanized experience.

In my teenage years, I began to acquaint myself with the history of my people. I learned some Yiddish, heard stories, and researched the events that led to my people’s near-total destruction. I became close with a survivor, whose stories of home and whose true yiddishkeit (and heimish Yiddish) interested me as much as his stories of harrowing escapes and the trauma of the war-years. Through writers such as S.Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem, and Bialik, and through the music of pre-war Judaism (Yiddish/Ladino), and even through the study of traditional, Torah texts (the tomes of Gemara and its commentators carry a trove of historical, sociological records). I sought to imagine what life was like before, during, and after the dramatic calamities of our history. The thought that my people had a rich history, offset by my society’s ignorance of its depth and breadth, brought me both comfort and frustration. Eagerness to learn more, and sadness over its increasing irrelevance. I wept over the loss, and I found little comfort.

Who can claim to know God’s workings, how may one try to understand what we lost? I can’t, for one, and I don’t care to listen to anyone who might offer an explanation. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t investigate the causes of the Holocaust. In fact we do way too little of that. The Treaty of Versailles worked wonders for the world, though it escapes our criticism. The West’s inability to act on army intelligence regarding the death camps caused many thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of preventable deaths (especially of Hungarian Jews). The spurious arguments connecting the Holocaust and Israel’s founding do not sway me. One cannot know what might have occurred otherwise, and I find the attempt to cope in such a way as supremely naïve.

We try to cope, but Israel, the Jews, and, it seems, the entire world, cannot, try as we might, distance ourselves from the trauma. The psychological and national damage that affects the Jews and Israel on account of what took place continues to play a large part in our psyches. The presence of survivors still reminds us of what happened, and we can only begin to assess the full scope of the psychological impact that has scarred our collective soul.

Indeed, even for the rest of the West, the Holocaust still takes a toll. (In 2014, during the refugee crisis, I recall listening to a German diplomat at YU as he explained that his government’s generous overture to the refugees represented for the Germans a reckoning [redemption?] for what they had done to us.) The Holocaust was not just a despicable act committed by the Germans against the Jews, it signified the climax of half a century of destruction and demoralization, and of the destabilization of Western society. Not only the Germans failed us, the West as a whole must take responsibility for the amorality and vacuum created by the decadent society of the post-Victorian era. Millions of lives were lost in two self-inflicted world wars, millions more in famine (caused either deliberately or through lack of proper foresight) and disease (encouraged by the disorderly and filthy conditions of war), and in at least two major genocides (as anyone who has walked the Armenian streets of Jerusalem knows). The West didn’t just lose those millions of victims, she didn’t just fall into moral disregard and abject cruelty, she also lost confidence in herself.

Prior to WWI, the West had not known full-scale modern warfare (except, of course, the American Civil War). They didn’t even consider how much damage such a war might wreak. The era of cavalry charges and hand-to-hand combat ended disastrously in the barrages of automatic rifles and exploding shells. The strength of human engineering had turned against the West, and, in Frankensteinian fashion, threatened the very existence of its creator. No longer could the West ignore the dangers of a world-wide, man-made disaster. The West, after having worked so long to climb out of the pits of the ignorant dark-ages (e.g. Thirty Years’ War) had again sunk herself in the trenches of despair and animal-like cruelty. This realization did not begin with the Holocaust, but what happened to the Jews broke the back of Western society. In response, philosophers and politicians agreed for once: The West, responsible for such a horror, must die.

And from then on, society has grappled with her Thanatos-inspired death-wish. The same self-destructive impulse that inspired the Great War, the same desire that needlessly torpedoed any effort at finding peace (Versailles), that same reasoning that overtook the Nazis and caused them to lose their humanity. Today it lives on, though nowadays it need not reveal itself as such. Nowadays it has a host.

In an ironic and paradoxical nature, this self-destructive instinct, has latched itself onto its very bane. The Holocaust and the wars the accompanied it not only demoralized society, not only directly damaged the West, but they also serve as the object-of-desire of this immortal evil. The inversion of natural human instinct, that of love, growth, and beauty, to that of pain, suffering, and destruction carries alongside it a tendency towards morbid fascination and the fetishizing of traumatic events. Just as a victim suffering from post-trauma might regress to past mental states of development (as the West has on many fronts), just as he might insist on reliving (through memory or action) his original trauma, so too the West (and in today’s globalized society—all of humanity) revisits her actions of infamy, her deepest, darkest moments, not in search of answers, not in order to fix anything, but in pathological obsession. She harbors a relentless, unconscious will to never let go of the trauma, to stay transfixed by her own weakness.

As a result of this obsession with one’s own destruction, or destructive tendencies, the West has despaired completely from any future progress/existence. The West of old, of enlightenment, sophistication, comradery, and progress, has devolved into a confused state of egotism, economic-paganism, and psychological illness. We suffer in the West from the disintegration of society. What took hundreds of years to build implodes before our very eyes, but all we can do is twiddle our thumbs. Rome is burning, and the firefighters suffer from acute pyrophobia.

The confidence in our prowess, in our ability to develop and change our existence, has fizzled out thanks to our overwhelming sensation of dread when contemplating social change. Any kind of revolutionary thinking, any kind of sophisticated pondering, receives as much ridicule as Jeremiah the prophet before the destruction of Jerusalem. Fear of insurrection, the throttling of free-speech and thought, and rabid xenophobia (which, in today’s society of strangers means fear of just about anyone) have all parts to play in this tragedy. We learn in school, through the media, and anyone we speak to that history has shown the danger in everything. Communism, the horror!, Nationalism, oy!, Religion, nein!, morality, no way! and so on and so on. “Everything has been tried and nothing works!”

And that’s what they want you to believe. The Holocaust and modern man’s self-inflicted suffering serve well as weapons in the hands of those intent on shutting down our desire for change. Society, they claim, has never looked better: “Look here, no Holocaust!”

But I do not judge society so favorably. To me, this endless sophistry, as dictated by political and economic interests, presents me with no significance whatsoever. Should I also thank my mother for not having aborted me as a fetus?! Maybe I should, though I surely won’t define my entire relationship with her based on the fact that she carried me to term! She loved me and cared for me as well! Must I define my entire relationship vis-à-vis the state (U.S., Israel, the West) by feelings of gratitude that it did not think to send me and my fellow brethren to our deaths in premeditated genocide? Can we not think of one positive reason to live? Israel, in contrast to what they might tell you on your ‘Heritage’ trip to the death camps, was not created expressly in order to defend Jews (hence the juxtaposition of Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’atzmaut). In fact, the State of Israel’s continued existence does not exactly make us so many friends in the world. Israel rose up in order to fulfill her destiny as a ‘light unto the nations.’ The West, too, must not continue to justify its existence by childishly repeating: ‘at least I’m not Hitler.’ The West’s innocence, already tarnished by wars, terror, and economic manipulation, cannot save her from destruction. She has used up her excuses. She must begin to think straight, return to God, return to morality, and attempt to resuscitate her collective spirit. She must strive again to fulfill her destiny. If her fear of failure bars her from acting, it would must certainly ironically end in her own destruction.

We must never forget what transpired in Europe 75 years ago, but we must not lose faith in humanity. We may never fully overcome the trauma of the Holocaust, but we must begin to lick our wounds, stand up, and dream again.

“Laugh, o laugh of the dreams/I dream/Laugh that I believe in Man/for I still believe in thee. For my soul yearns for salvation/I have not sold herto a golden calf/I still believe in Man/in his spirit, his strong spirit.”

Shaul Tchernichovsky