Remembering the Holocaust Part I: American Memories
The Holocaust is unique. It is remembered like no other human rights violation in this nation, including ones that have been committed by United States citizens. The Sand Creek massacre, our occupation of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, slavery, and similar actions tend to only receive recognition in history books and occasional PBS specials. The Holocaust, however, in addition to rocking the history book and PBS scene, has been remembered in many U.S. films, literature for adults and children, memoirs, graphic novels, photography, art, music, made-for-TV movies, non-PBS documentaries, and museum exhibits. We choose to remember it to such an extent that it is cultural common knowledge. No one is ignorant of the Holocaust’s significance, even if one has never heard of our internment of Japanese citizens or the War of 1812.
Why do we go to such lengths to remember the Holocaust?
I believe there are several answers. First, as cultural common knowledge it functions as a common moral lesson. Everyone who is right-thinking believes that the Holocaust was wrong, so it defines part of a moral code that everyone can draw upon. Second, since it was perpetrated by Germany, we can pass on the moral lessons without guilt or cultural baggage. As a nation, we do not agree that another great crime, our slaveholding history, was terrible to the same extent. To do so would attack the part of the population that believes the South was justified in secession; that slavery wasn’t so bad; that Jim Crow was a good thing; etc. Yet since we did not take part in the Holocaust, we can take out the lesson of “discrimination (Antisemitism) is wrong” without ruffling regional feathers. Third, there is a strong connection with Europe, since so many Americans descended and emigrated from the continent. We collectively see Europeans as familiar foreigners and we are interested in how they conduct themselves. Fourth, our strong sympathy for the victims is a testimony to the strength of the Jewish community. The Jewish community has long had a legitimacy and power that other victim groups have not. The wider community not only believed the stories of survivors and provided them with healing resources, but it lobbied governments around the world to recognize the atrocity as well and put its considerable resources to publicizing survivors’ accounts. Thus we remember the Jewish victims first and foremost.
Yet in our common portrayal of the Holocaust, I have become aware of many gaps. In some ways the common knowledge aspect works against us, everyone is assumed to know certain facts. The political and social context within which “The Final Solution” arose tends to be lacking or treated perfunctorily. The political battle of National Socialism and Communism in Germany, the legacy of WWI reparations in Germany, the rise of eugenics, economic accomplishments of Hitler’s government, the Polish corridor to the sea, the Sudetenland, Mussolini and his influence on Hitler, the Spanish Civil War…these movements and events are conspicuously absent in documentaries and museums. Conspicuous, that is, if you know they are supposed to be there. Unfairly, the Holocaust is often portrayed as the sole idea of one crazy leader and carried out by intrinsically evil Nazi officials, which the German people let happen because of ignorance or fear. It happened because Hitler was a bad apple and not because it had a context that made each step logical.
The portrayal of the victims is also patchy. The only reason that homosexual victims are remembered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is because one particular (gay) historian badgered them about it. (To learn more, see this excellent documentary.) Even so, the inclusion can be summed up with the phrase “and gay men were victimized too.” No further information is available. Discrimination against Sinti and Roma communities (e.g. “gypsies”) as well as the mentally/physically handicapped has minimized mention of their suffering, though they were victims of the “The Final Solution” as well. Eugenics is rarely given the discussion I think it deserves, for that is the form the racism took. It wasn’t like Germany woke up one day and decided that certain very well integrated and economically valuable citizens were subhuman; citizens were persuaded of it for years using eugenics arguments. What about the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Why did that happen? There are many similar missing pieces.
And I have never, ever heard any accounts of rape (outside of medical experiments). As far as I know from U.S. portrayals of the Holocaust, the Nazis beat people, starved them, humiliated them, lynched them, worked them to death, shot babies, mass murdered in various ways, performed experiments on them, and tortured for fun – but all activity was exclusive of genitals. How likely.
I recently traveled to Europe, and I was curious about the public memory of the Holocaust there. Memories of it were sure to be wrapped up in national identities and general feelings about the war itself. I was curious to what extent Europeans remembered it differently from Americans. Where were their blind spots? What – and whom – do they choose to remember? Could I get a more complete understanding of what really happened?
My journey was by no means inclusive of everything I could have seen or even of the most significant memorials. Of course it was also limited to museums and public memorials, as I did not speak the languages of the nations I visited and so could not take in print and television portrayals. I feel like my experiences were valuable, though, because only historians gather complete and total information. The people I talked to and the things I saw were just as likely to reflect the experiences of any other tourist.
In this series I will summarize and evaluate the memorials I have seen, in the order that I visited them. I do believe that remembering the Holocaust is relevant and deeply important – even more so as the final survivors pass away, leaving the burden of remembering entirely upon later generations. The series will proceed as follows:
Part II: Danish and Polish Resistance
Part III: Auschwitz
Part IV: Memories in Berlin
Part V: Living Despite the Terror in Amsterdam
Part VI: Conclusions