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Questions about memory

by Gabriele Nissim

Gabriele Nissim during the Holocaust Remembrance  2019 at the Pime Theatre

Gabriele Nissim during the Holocaust Remembrance 2019 at the Pime Theatre

Perhaps never like this year, numerous questions have arisen on the meaning of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Someone thinks we are breathing an air of tiredness and rhetoric as if this Day were lived like a social obligation. Others fear that remembering the past may not be a sufficient antidote to anti-Jewish biases in the face of the worsening of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Others yet see a deep gap between the memory of Nazi persecutions and the new political behaviours, that are re-proposing mechanisms of intolerance and hate. The condemnation of the past thus seems as insufficient to face the new responsibilities of our time. Then there are those who believe that any comparison of the Holocaust with the other genocide cases, or with the contradictions of our time, can tarnish the memory of that absolute evil, that hit, in particular, the Jews – the risk would thus be to see the uniqueness of the Holocaust questioned.

It is a broad and complex issue, with a variety of stances that require a brave attitude, if we want to avoid a progressive moral emptying of the Day. For some extents, we find ourselves at a crossroads, also following the gradual passing away of the Holocaust eyewitnesses and the distance of the younger generations from the past: remembering is more difficult when we do not have family memories of war and fascism. Thus, the therapeutic effect of remembrance is weakening. The relative closeness to the debris of Second World War shook the consciences, regardless of the respective view points, because it was a tragic past that almost immediately poured into the present – while remembering the massacres of Jews we used to feel an immediate disgust for every form of racism or re-proposition under new forms of the fascist ideology. The fact of being far from those events, instead, not only makes it more difficult to understand the past, whose seriousness can thus be dimmed but also makes it more problematic to confront with the present. This way, when new mechanisms of hate and phenomena of ethnic and nationalist closure surface, many people believe they have nothing to do with the gloomy times of the fascist and Nazi past. Every linkage between past and present is lost as if they were on two different planets.

In the face of these interrogatives, along with 700 pupils and their teachers who gathered at the Pime Theatre of Milan to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I decided to make a small experiment. I did not tell them tales like I usually do when I talk about the Righteous and responsibility, I did not urge them with stories about the loneliness of the victims and the indifference of the society, but I deemed it important to inform them about the debate on remembrance. I told myself that, unless we explain the students the meaning of this Day, the storm of images and lofty speeches only becomes a ritual and an obligation for them, whose effect is exhausted within a few hours. The pupils know why they have to study economics, history, philosophy or mathematics. They put an effort into their studies because they are aware they will be useful to them in their lives and professions. But how many people did explain these youths that remembrance is a useful subject for the society and thus it requires specific knowledge on the historical and theoretical level, as well?

Remembrance is a discipline that was formulated by masters of thought, like Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, and Elie Wiesel, and which today would require new interpreters and further insights. But what is then this new discipline like? Remembrance, first of all, is not a simple transmission of the tales of past injustice, but its goal is to promote new ethical behaviours in society. It is not enough to remember, but we should decide how to revive memory in order to improve the citizens’ responsibility in our present world. Thus, there is no neutral memory, but rather a remembrance aimed at the promotion of citizenship. There are, revolving about this subject, good and bad handlings of Holocaust Remembrance Day, that arise also from opposed theories. There are some people who, like Tzvetan Todorov said, who have an archaeological vision of memory and avoid making any reference to the present out of fear of trivializing the past. They are the people who are afraid of comparing the Holocaust with the other genocide cases and thus wander off the teaching of Primo Levi, who said that the memory of evil is a magnifying lens to recognize every new form of evil that surfaces in the society. If you think of the grey zone, in fact, which made the concentration camps possible, you will become much more aware of the mechanisms of indifference that are manifested in our society. Instead, there are the promoters of an exemplary remembrance, which searches the past for teachings for the present. We don’t need to remember everything, but we must carefully choose what enables us to make our society more responsible. This is the art of memory, which stimulates the consciences. It may seem paradoxical but remembrance, in order to serve its purpose, must also create a certain detachment from the past, even to the point of developing new productive forms of oblivion. And what does this mean? We shouldn’t exclusively focus on the responsibilities for the victims and their suffering, but also think that their deliverance can come if we take care of the living. To the dead, we should ensure a proper burial, restitution of dignity, and justice, but this pathway can be considered as completed only if we create a new world where suffering does not resurface and effective antidotes are created against any form of arrogance.

The theme becomes even more complex if we think that many Holocaust survivors have felt guilty for surviving the Nazi savagery in the place of others, for saving themselves by chance or thanks to someone’s help, or for passing the harshest test for a human being, the competition for life in a concentration camp. When people we love die, we feel a sense of bewilderment, perhaps because we realize we have not done everything possible for them when they were alive. We suddenly realize our limits, our shortcomings that we will no more be able to readdress after their death. That’s why, in order to deliver ourselves, we want to keep them with us in our memories: we feel defaulting, we live with a sense of guilt and upsetting and, if we do not remember them at least in our thoughts, we feel sick and at unease. Let’s thus try to think of those who survived instead of others in Auschwitz. They have felt the duty to devote their lives to the memory of the dead in order to pay for their “guilt of surviving”. This mechanism prompted many survivors to tell accurately about that harrowing time, but sometimes it estranged them from reality and compelled them to take refuge, with great pessimism, in an unsalvageable past.

A great Israeli writer, Yishai Sarid, in a book bearing a very significant title, The memory monster - by telling the story of a Yad Vashem guide to the concentration camps in Poland, invites us to reflect on a possible risk: that absolute identification with the story of the Jews abandoned at the hands of the calculations and inhumanity of the Nazis who inflicted them the most heinous suffering in the concentration camps can lead to becoming more bitter and insensitive. “Maybe in the future, in order to rescue ourselves, we should behave like the Germans”, Sarid lets his book’s protagonist say. Looking exclusively at the past can thus cause the most dangerous distortions of memory because we abandon every hope in the future until we convince ourselves that the world will always be the one of Auschwitz.

If we are to exit this hellish circle, it becomes necessary to find again the smallest flickers of humanity that were there despite that terrible destruction and to give them more value. It is thus an existential choice, which in order to repress some terrible things, brings about others which are more positive, in order to restart hoping. It may seem paradoxical, but in order to start their lives again in the world, some survivors had to forget about something; it wasn’t a guilty repression, but an act of responsibility in order to find the strength to go ahead. So they redeem the dead while trying to create something new, as of the rest was done by many of those who moved to Israel. They were not keepers of the past and the cemeteries, but they rediscovered their dignity and the one of the dead, by engaging in a reconstruction work. The responsibility toward the dead turned into a work of deliverance in the existing world.

And then there is an important novelty in the mechanism of memory: its transmission has become part of the history of the postwar countries, and for this extent, we can observe different experiences, with good qualities and limits. In Germany, for example, the public memory of the extermination of the Jews has become a pathway, through which people and institutions have fully taken up responsibility. The young Germans were told how the State and the majority of the population were guilty, without extenuating circumstances, for the death of the Jews. Saying this bravely meant to transmit an important message to other countries, as well. This was the only way to repay, across time, the immense debt we have toward the Jews. You recognize the maturity of a country from its full assumption of responsibility. Other countries, like Poland and Hungary, have shifted the blame entirely on Germany. They tell about the sufferings of the Jews, they show their friendship to Israel, but then, on purpose, they are silent on their responsibility for Nazism, in order to keep their innocence. They affirm that the Nazis have been guilty, while they have only let themselves be carried into that hell.

But today, public remembrance is facing other challenges, as we have recently seen in Italy. We talk about the Nazi past, and yet we try to keep it separate from the current history of this country. We can show friendship toward the Jews and at the same time let themselves be carried away by a nationalist and anti-Europeanist view, justifying policies against hospitality and contending that the stories of the migrants have nothing to do with the Jews’ fate. An answer to this all came from Liliana Segre, when she remembered that we should not compare the racist laws to what is happening today, but that the mechanisms of indifference are very similar. The Senator has talked in the spirit of Primo Levi: we forget and repress the past only when we do not look at the present.

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

13 February 2019

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Carlo Bianchi

he dedicated his life helping those in need, saving the Sonnino-Shapira Jewish family from persecution