Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and elsewhere around the world. I don’t think it’s widely known in the United States — partly because it falls on the 27th day in the Jewish month of Nissan, and so moves year by year within the Gregorian calendar — but even if this is the first time you’ve heard of it, please do find some time to reflect on the Holocaust today.
Indeed, it’s probably a good thing to be surprised by the day: since the 1970s, the Holocaust has been so widely addressed in history curricula, public memorials, and popular culture that it may — impossibly — lose its power to shock. Commemoration is a cultural liturgy, and like the religious ones, it can become dry and dusty, drained of feeling by rote repetition.
Lest “never forget” and “never again” become dead orthodoxies, it’s well that you might be caught off guard when you visit Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader and find essays like this one from Ta-Nehesi Coates at The Atlantic, who reencountered the Holocaust while reading Antony Beevor’s history of The Second World War. Coates starts by stating his preference for a “humanist” approach to history, and why it doesn’t seem to work with history’s most infamous genocide:
When studying a great evil, my general approach is to try to preserve my judgement but suspend my judgementalism. In other words, I want to be able to tell you very forthrightly about the evils of, say slavery, while at the same time telling you about the psychology of the slave-holder. And I want to do this with the full knowledge that I could have been on either side of the whip.
…That humanist approach to history, as opposed to marshaling history for condemnation or the improvement of collective self-esteem, is one I have tried to emulate.
In the case of the Holocaust, it is failing me. For all the talk of supremacy, Nazism in Beovor’s [sic] telling is savagery and cannibalism. I don’t mean that for rhetorical effect. The Nazis are using human body hair, human skin, human fat to make products. When practiced by the darker peoples of the world, we call this savagery.
Or as Coates notes at the end of the post, “There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943” — causing him to rethink the progressive-historical notion that “racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress.”
I sympathize entirely with his frustration. As I’ve written in earlier posts on the Holocaust, I try to approach it as I do any tragic historical event: balancing empathy (not sympathy) for perpetrators with a desire for justice, and preferring to engage in moral reflection rather than moral judgment. (I especially love this phrase from Coates: “…preserve my judgement but suspend my judgementalism.”) But while I still think that seeking that balance is the appropriate impulse for any student of history, and ultimately a better solution than either indulging unreflective rage or feigning icy detachment, there are times when those other responses have allure.
Better yet, today I’m reminded of a verse from the Hebrew scriptures that is inscribed over the Jewish memorial at Dachau:
Set terror over them, O LORD; let the nations know they are but men. (Psalm 9:21, Mechon-Mamre)