Holocaust Remembrance (3)

This is the third in a series of posts.

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Fifty years ago, Jean Améry insisted, with the full right given him by the fact of his own survival of Auschwitz, that for the German people truly to remember the Holocaust would be for that people to bring itself as a whole and at last to judgment for what it did during those years. However, Améry, at least, was never under the illusion that any such thing would ever happen. Already fifty hears ago, he knew it never would.

What Roman Kent and his fellow survivors appealing to the German high court ask in our own day, speaking with the same authority, is not even that the German people as such judge itself as a whole, but only that it actually bring to final judgment those few who still remain alive among the active perpetrators of Germany’s Nazi crimes. He and his fellow survivors know all too well that Germany has already let many of those criminals escape forever beyond all possibility of German justice. They know that that breach of justice can never be redeemed.  All they ask is that Germany let no more perpetrators escape justice.

I do not know Mr. Kent, but I would be greatly surprised to learn that he was under any more illusion that such a request for such a very limited justice will ever actually be granted than Jean Améry was under any illusion that his demand for an absolute justice would ever be met.

However, even if Germany had prosecuted, convicted, sentenced, and carried out the sentences for nearly all the individual perpetrators of the Holocaust, letting only a handful escape justice rather than the many who actually did, that would hardly have redressed the imbalance. It would have made Mr. Kent’s and his fellow Auschwitz survivors’ recent request for a speedy conclusion of the German appeal process in the judgment already made against just one still surviving perpetrator altogether unnecessary in the first place. Nevertheless, it would in no way have satisfied Améry’s demand for a far greater justice.

Nor should we today be under any illusion whatever that the absolute justice Améry’s “resentment” requires will ever be done—at least at the level of “historical practice,” and not mere “pie in the sky bye and bye.” It will not be.

Nevertheless, the fact that such a demand for final justice will never be met does not invalidate that demand itself. It only makes it stronger.

Nor does the fact that that demand will never be met in any way lessen the obligation the same demand places on all of us still alive today at least to hear what is being demanded. Rather, the impossibility of ever meeting that demand only heightens our own responsibility to awaken to our obligation, and never to forget ourselves in the negative sense, by forgetting that demand upon us and, therefore, forgetting who we really are, and what we really owe. The obligation for us—most especially including those of us such as myself, who are descendants neither of Holocaust victims nor of Holocaust perpetrators—is always to hold ourselves open and attentive to that demand, in all its impossibility of ever being granted.

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So far as I can see, just that is what it means for all of us today to “remember the Holocaust.” Only so can we genuinely honor our obligation of remembrance of the Holocaust, our obligation never to forget it, today, and for every coming day.

In turn, a major part of what is required for us to practice such genuine remembrance is that we be careful to remember all the victims of the Holocaust, not any selected segment of them to the exclusion of others. To honor only a segment, even one broad enough to include the vast majority of Holocaust victims, is actually to dis-honor them all. It is to dishonor them precisely by continuing to practice the very sorting or “selecting” that made them all victims in the first place—the very sorting the ultimate, most horrifying image of which is Josef Mengele and the other Nazi doctors making the “selections” at the trains as they arrived in Auschwitz.

I do not at all mean that we should not pay careful attention to how unevenly the horrors of the Holocaust were distributed. Disproportionately, of course, they fell upon the Jewish people, all of whom were targeted for “special treatment.” To blur such distinctions and disproportions is also to dishonor Holocaust victims as a whole. However, it is important to draw the lines of those distinctions carefully, with special care not to draw them in such a way as to erase the memory of some of those who were made to suffer so horribly, in the name of remembering others who shared the same fate.

Above all, we certainly need to remember how disproportionately many Jews were murdered, at a far higher percentage than any other group, and how Jews alone were singled out for total destruction by being robbed of all other identities they might have been born into—as Améry, for example, was born into an identity precisely as a German—and defined despite themselves and their own allegiances as “blood-enemies” of the German nation. Yet such remembrance would dishonor Jewish Holocaust victims themselves, if it were to forget how other population-segments—from the Roma, to those with mentally disabilities, to Soviet citizens (especially Soviet prisoners of war), or even to Poles as a whole, to give some examples—also suffered disproportionately in relation to the total population, even if the disproportion never approached that of the Jews. The memory of all such victims must be carefully preserved, if the memory of the Holocaust as such is truly to be kept.

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To be continued.