A Reason for Remembrance

Once upon a time, we celebrated holidays and honored men and women and moments from our past as though they were charged with meaning. Armistice Day, Independence Day, Lincoln’s birthday. I remember a Memorial Day, in 1976, when everyone marched through the six-block town to the cemetery and sat respectfully as David Bradshaw, a veteran of World War II, talked intimately about those who had given their life in battle in one or another of our 20th-century wars. It was an occasion for remembering friends and family, for weeping, and for some form of catharsis. It was an honored day, repeated year after year, and made fresh again and again.

Perhaps it is that I now live in a large city, or that our culture has placed such a premium on speed and change, but, today, memory often is something you locate on a chip, and the fragile connections to our past have eroded beyond repair. Many of those familiar celebratory days have been converted to a kind of kitsch culture, and they now are often welcomed for the pleasurable fact that they provide us with a three-day weekend.

Not so Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be observed this Sunday, April 18, at Pan Pacific Park (Beverly Boulevard and Genesee Avenue in Los Angeles, 1:45 to 3:45 p.m.). Gov. Gray Davis and Israeli Consul General Yoram Ben Ze’ev will be in attendance, as will Harvard Professor Daniel Goldhagen, the keynote speaker, who will focus on the commemoration’s theme — “1939-1999: The 60th Anniversary of Hitler’s War of Genocide.” Goldhagen, as you may remember, is the author of the controversial 1996 historical account “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.”

Pulling together research material that had been bypassed or slighted by earlier scholars, Goldhagen, in his book, charged that the murderers in Germany were not drawn primarily from the SS and the bureaucrats of the Nazi Party. Rather, he asserted, the brutality and the killing were taken up by all sorts of ordinary German men and women from many walks of life. They fell to their task, said Goldhagen, not because they were under orders or faced death themselves, but because they were part of a national culture that hated and demonized Jews.

It will escape no one at Pan Pacific Park Sunday that 54 years after the death camps were freed, we are witnessing a related set of tragedies in Kosovo, albeit not genocide on the scale or in the systematic way that the Germans went at it under Hitler. Nevertheless, in less than a month, we have seen more than 600,000 “cleansed” from their homeland; an unknown number killed; and many, many more (hundreds of thousands, as reported in The New York Times) uprooted from their homes but still frozen somewhere in Kosovo. And from the limited reports that have filtered back, it seems that “ordinary Serbs” in Kosovo are either cheering on the Yugoslav security forces or are lending a cooperative hand.

So, no, April 18th will not be a “kitsch holiday,” or a day of forgetting.

It should be acknowledged, though, that we American Jews, 50-plus years after the fact, are still having trouble with the Holocaust. Perhaps that is as it should be. But most of us have not yet come to terms with the indifference of America’s elected leaders in the 1930s and 1940s; with the silence of some in our Jewish communities during those frightening years; with our lack of influence; and, yes, with our political impotence in those earlier decades.

Nor have many of us resolved our feelings about Germany, even though we are quick to recognize that most Germans today were either not born during the period of the Third Reich or were mere children. But — in explanation — there has been no opportunity for us to purge our feelings, to cherish the satisfaction of personal revenge, to experience some form of catharsis. All we have been allowed has been to bear silent witness for those who survived, and to mourn those who perished. It is why, Kosovo or not, Holocaust Remembrance Day will be with us — as we stand mute, confounded, enraged — for years to come.

Israelis I have met over the years seem somehow freer. They certainly remember the past, but appear less haunted by it. And that may go a way towards explaining why Israel has developed a number of strong ongoing programs with postwar Germany. And I believe it also illuminates Ari Shavit’s opinion piece (see page 43), in which he declares that Jews the world over carry a special responsibility to aid the displaced victims of Kosovo. Our history forces us to recognize their plight, he urges, and to identify with it. And with our position of strength in Israel and the United States today, he adds, we can and should act as NATO’s conscience. In short, it is the Jews who are obliged to take the lead in seeking aid and remedies for the displaced immediately.

I heartily endorse his column. But I have an additional thought. I wonder if our fury at Milosevic and the Serbs is related to our incomplete feelings about Germany and the Germans, and if our call for punishment and revenge in Yugoslavia might be designed to help bring us a sense of retribution, finally — or at least the illusion of it. —Gene Lichtenstein