Holocaust Remembrance (5)

This is the last of a series of posts.

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Significantly, though he died in 1938, even before the Kristallnacht pogrom let alone the implementation of the “final solution,” and had no tattooed number on his arm, Sigmund Freud said much the same thing as Jean Améry, the Auschwitz survivor, later did. (It is worth remarking, by the way, that, if American philosopher Jason Stanley today can count his mother and father, with good justification, as “Holocaust survivors,” then by an only slightly greater but no less reasonable extension of terms we can also count Freud himself as a “Holocaust victim,” since it was the same process that culminated in the death camps that also drove him out of his native Vienna, to die in London.) Thus, Freud wrote in the preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo:

No reader of the Hebrew version of this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of the author who is ignorant of the language of the Holy Writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot share in nationalistic ideas [that is, the Zionism that eventually led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel], but who has never repudiated his people, who feels in his essential nature a Jew, and who has no desire to alter that nature.  If the question were put to him: “Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left that is Jewish?”  he would reply: “A great deal, and probably its very essence,” though he could not express that essence clearly in words.


Even if we confine our attention to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, who certainly did most disproportionately constitute the population of such victims, we forget ourselves shamelessly while claiming to remember the Holocaust if we in turn fail to honor precisely as Jews such victims as Freud and Améry, those two wholly non-religious and non-nationalistic Jewish victims—made victims because of their very Jewishness.

Whatever ceremonial form, if any, our remembrance of the Holocaust and its victims may take (if any), whether it be religious or secular, public or private, collective or individual, we must not forget ourselves shamelessly, by repeating the very sorts of exclusion on which the Holocaust itself was based, all the while priding ourselves on how magnificently we are “remembering” it. We are duty bound not to forget ourselves by such self-centered exclusions of all those who do not share our own way of taking up our own identity, whatever that identity and however we may choose to relate to it.

We are obligated to strive not to forget ourselves in that negative way, and instead to give up our own preferences and affiliations—to forget ourselves in the positive sense—in order that we may honor the memory of the Holocaust as such, with all its victims, including most definitely such undeniably Jewish victims as Freud and Améry.

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For those of us who are ourselves not Jewish, as I am not, how are we called to answer that challenge truly to fulfill our obligation always to remember the Holocaust?

To answer that challenge and fulfill that obligation requires all or us at issue to find our way to a form of our own non-Jewish identity, most especially if that is in some sense a religious identity—whether as a Christian (as my own is), or as a member of any other faith-community—in such as way that all of us non-Jews can maintain our varied identities even if we are just as void of any belief in "God," "history," and "messianic-national hope" as Jean Améry always remained—Améry, whom Auschwitz itself faced with the necessity of assuming his own Jewish identity under just such atheistic, non-nationalistic conditions.

Meeting that challenge would be a genuine remembrance of the Holocaust for us who are not Jewish today! That is so whether we are, as non-Jews, among the ever more rapidly dwindling number of still living Holocaust victims (Jews and non-Jews alike), or among the descendents of either still surviving or already dead Holocaust victims, or (as fits me) of no direct relation to any such victims, living or dead, at all.

Though I am not myself a Jew, I am willing to say the same even for those of us who are Jewish, and all of whom are therefore either Holocaust victims themselves or, in one sense or another, descendents of such victims. For those of us who are Jewish, no less than for those of us who belong to some other people, we dare not “forget ourselves” shamefully by failing to honor the truth that Améry's lines set into work. We forget ourselves in that shameful way whenever we focus our concerns in any exclusive way on our own needs, wishes, memberships, and identifications, rather than keeping our focus open and aware of our ongoing responsibility always to keep honoring the memory of the Holocaust and all its victims.

Not to honor that memory, then, is to forget ourselves in a shameful sense, by dishonoring our obligation to remember the Holocaust. How could one possibly have any right to claim Jewish identity today, if one forgot the Holocaust and remembered only oneself? But in reality that same question addresses itself to non-Jews as well. In sum:  How could one possibly have any right to claim any truly human identity at all, if one forgot oneself in such a shameful way?

Yet how are we all, Jews and non-Jews alike, to avoid forgetting ourselves in such a shameful way? Paradoxically, the only way to avoid so shamefully forgetting ourselves is by “forgetting ourselves” in a different, positive sense. In that positive sense, to forget ourselves is to let go of our self-absorption in order always to remember above all to honor our obligations to others—and thereby truly to honor ourselves, as well.  In order not to “forget ourselves” in the negative sense, shaming ourselves by failing to honor our obligations, we must “forget ourselves” in the positive sense, by opening toward and accepting our obligations.

It is only by such honorable and honoring forgetting of ourselves that we can ever remember who we really are, and not forget ourselves in a shameful, dishonorable, dishonoring way.