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Saturday, September 26, 2020

When ‘Never Forget’ Goes Too Far

On May 11, The New York Times ran a disturbing story about a proposed design for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the site of the Ukrainian massacre of 33,771 Jews by Nazi forces in 1941. The center’s design, envisioned by filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, proposed to sort visitors into “victims” or “executioners” and then conduct a role-playing exercise that uses virtual reality to re-create the event. Such a plan would be revolting. 

Museums and educational settings often employ historical re-enactments. For decades, high schools, camps and museums have run Underground Railroad re-enactments, in which “fugitive slaves” crawl through forests and lakes under the cover of night to reach “freedom.” Civil War re-enactors can be seen on the grounds of Gettysburg. Even a Titanic exhibit in San Diego offers a degree of personalization by issuing visitors a passport of a real passenger to follow throughout the exhibition. These types of re-enactments offer a chance for the visitor to become not just an observer, but a witness to history.  

Re-enactment can seem especially appealing to those committed to Holocaust remembrance. Jews are taught to “Never Forget” the Holocaust by attending museums, talking to survivors  and going on programs such as March of the Living. By immersing oneself in the stories and sites of the Holocaust, the veil between then and now thins, and the commitment to memorialize becomes not just about the survivors, but each subsequent generation of Jews. Tastefully done, museums can imbue this sense of timelessness and deeper engagement: The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, for example, has visitors walk through the two doors — “Able Bodied” and “Children and Others” — that were used to send Jews to manual labor or to the gas chambers. 

No depiction could fully capture the horror of those who lived through the Holocaust.

But the design for the Babyn Yar memorial contorts this charge to memorialize. Most glaringly, the proposed design sought to use personality tests to sort individuals into Nazis and Jews, which is nightmarish and disgusting. But on a deeper level, combining individuals’ traits with historical identities is disturbing because it overwrites the identities of real perpetrators and victims with ours. This degree of immersion removes the ability to imagine ourselves as the victims, and instead we become them. And with virtual reality showing the events in “real time,” we override the experiences of victims and perpetrators with that of our own. Rather than remember, we erase. 

Re-enactment also risks shutting down productive dialogue. Many survivors kept silent for decades after the Holocaust, largely because the experiences were so traumatizing. The virtual reality programming proposed by Khrzhanovsky risks creating that same type of trauma for visitors playing perpetrator and victim almost 80 years later. Rather than fostering deeper, more meaningful engagement with the Holocaust, Babyn Yar’s proposed programming would flood visitors’ with such fear, shame and terror that the emotions could utterly overwhelm any attempts to understand and process the event. It’s estimated that as many as 150,000 people, including Soviet prisoners of war and Roma, were killed there. 

At its worst, the Babyn Yar memorial ignores the role of the post-Holocaust generation. The descendants of survivors didn’t experience the events of the Holocaust firsthand. Their charge, then, is to bear witness to history by making the events of the Holocaust tangible enough that younger generations can understand how they occurred and how it can prevent them. That diverse effort is achieved by passing on stories through museums, plays, shows and songs, often sparking debates over depictions that teeter between the powerful and the pastiche. Critically, these depictions are subservient to the knowledge, experiences and stories of the survivors — no depiction could fully capture the horror of those who lived through the Holocaust, nor should any portrayal try to. Khrzhanovsky’s design takes “bear witness” too literally, boasting an experience that detracts from the post-Holocaust’s generation of passing on stories from one to the other.

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, the Jewish community must make critical decisions as to how to pursue “Never Forget.” That maxim is — and should remain — a communal act of remembering those who lived through those horrors themselves. “Never Forget” does not, nor should it, entail Khrzhanovsky’s vision of creating those atrocities live and on demand.


Ari Berman is assistant editor at Foreign Affairs. 

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