Memories made in the coldest winter
Gabriel Niforatos | Monday, January 28, 2019
“Never will I forget … never.”
These words are part of a poem on the Holocaust entitled “Night,” written by Elie Wiesel — author, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor.
Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I am shaken. I am shaken that Elie Wiesel is gone and I cannot speak to the man that endured unspeakably horrific tragedy, a man that turned pain and memory into art and fought so that the events he went through would never occur again. A man that ensured that memories made in the coldest winter would never die and seeds would survive the brutal wait until spring.
This past Friday, Hesburgh Library hosted an event called “The Holocaust in American Catholic Newspapers.” This event was billed as a “sprint” through microfilm of news clippings related to the Holocaust and was supposed to be an event in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. Outside a small digital advertisement for it in the elevators in Hesburgh and a small section in the WeekND email, I did not see this event advertised anywhere else. I confess that I did not attend the event, expecting a larger, more significant event with a greater Jewish perspective on Sunday. To my dismay, there was no such event, speech or email dignifying this tragic yet extremely important day.
I am confess that I am deeply disappointed. The primary issue is not that this event seems wholesomely inadequate as a means to honor the lives of the seventeen million people killed in the Holocaust, numbers which included the lives of six million Jews. The primary issue is not the lack of the University to acknowledge Holocaust Remembrance Day in some way on Sunday, no matter how small. The issue is far more fundamental and deep-seated.
Maurice Halbwachs, the founder of the idea of collective memory, stated that memory is only those events that are remembered by our oldest living family member. Anything beyond this is called history. What is the fate of Holocaust remembrance then? Are we supposed to sit back and wait for the passing of the last survivor and call that exact moment the signpost for when memory becomes history? Does the death of the last leaf signify the immediacy of the passing of autumn to winter?
I am young, with a long journey of education and life ahead of me. But I reject theory. I refuse to acknowledge that the passing of history into memory means that the personal nature and importance of one of those comes at the expense of the other one. I reject theory because I am afraid. I am afraid that history can be collected, neatly boxed and forgotten. Files and archives, serial codes to mark and find the serial code tattoos of those in the camps. In short, I am afraid that we will become microfilm.
One might argue that the study of history is to preserve and record and keep such events alive. I contend that the fate of history is to be forgotten. Just as layers of soil and rock hide secrets below miles and miles of heat, rock and time, I am afraid that the passage of time will fossilize the memory of the Holocaust and “Never Again” will become the mosquito encrusted in tree sap to some future historical archaeologist. Sure, the boxes and the archives will be opened and written about for a time. But boxes will be placed on boxes and voices and stories will be drowned out by times and events that seem more tangible and important in the heat of the moment.
Of course, I am not saying that history or the study of it is insignificant. Additionally, it could be argued that memory and history are inevitably interwoven. However, remembrance is extremely sacred to Jews. Whether we define ourselves to be religiously, ethnically or spiritually Jewish, memory and remembering are two sides of the same coin that define our heritage. I cannot claim that such importance is one that solely belongs to the Jewish people, or even that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But for a Jew, memory is the anchor for a people defined by the wilderness, a people chained by diaspora after diaspora, a people that refuses to be forgotten in the desert. Memory is the extra letter in our DNA that keeps us fundamentally unified although borders and societies change over time. We may argue about the structure of the Jewish identity, of genetics and history, religion and culture. But memory is the thread that unites us all. It is the photograph of the story of pain and triumph that every people has experienced since the dawn of time. Memory is the thing that makes us human.
In honor of the Holocaust, send an email. Write a speech. But above all, do everything in your power to ensure that memories made in the coldest winter will not melt when the heat of spring and summer inevitably arrive.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.