Jewish World Review May 1, 2014 / 1 Iyar, 5774
Holocaust Day again
By Paul Greenberg
Another year, another Holocaust Day -- just as there's another
It's a familiar transformation -- from the unique to the annual, from enormity into class assignment. It's the standard modern metamorphosis: Awe gives way to routine, shock to ceremony, the monstrous to the mundane, the horror to lectures about it.
Is there any better way to reduce the unique to the ordinary than to make it a Day? It's the essence of modernization: trivialization. When was Holocaust Day -- Sunday, Monday? I forget.
The process is familiar by now, and it happened some time ago to the Holocaust. Something singular, ineffable, beyond words ... is turned into nothing but words, something no longer unique in history but today's lesson plan. The inexpressible sorrow and pity of it, the shame and anguish of it, is turned into ... what, exactly, if anything? A notation on the calendar? A college major? A website? A springboard for the current political cause of some president or prime minister somewhere?
So does the Holocaust become a genocide like any other genocide, entitled to the same neglect from the world. When the Holocaust becomes Holocaust Studies, what happened is turned into academic studies of what happened.
It's the inescapable, modern way: demystification. The greatest mystery cannot survive being talked to death. Now we have Holocaust Day the way we have Black History Month. It is observed mainly for ceremonial purposes, or political ones, or just out of a sense of duty that became rote long ago.
Yes, the abyss that was and is the Holocaust must be explored, none of it forgotten, so it will never happen again. Yes, we know it all needs to be written down, recorded, studied. But our attention wanders. How many times can we be told the same thing without its paling? Yet it is no longer possible simply to contemplate it in silence. Silence may be the one thing our ever-tolerant society cannot tolerate.
Silence in the waning presence of the Holocaust may still be possible, but only in theory, not in practice. Silence is the one service all our modern, sophisticated, wondrous, interconnected technology does not provide. Our consumer culture can produce a new gizmo a minute -- the Next Big Thing that we all must have. But not silence. And not the whole constellation of things that go with silence: reflection, reverence, privacy, solitude, contemplation, awe.
But all that is so ... yesterday. To be moved by the Holocaust is passť -- if it is possible at all by now. It embarrasses some of us, and bores more of us. It has become just another ceremony, just another Day, if we notice it at all. Making something dutiful can make it forgettable.
Now we can get the Holocaust on
There's no explicit law against silence, but there might as well be. Presidents want to have a Conversation About Race, but what they have to say about it is ... we forget. But we do know something can't be capital-I Important unless we talk about it, preferably in a group, soulfully, like guests on "Oprah" or "
How long have I been reading/talking/arguing about the Holocaust? I grew up with it. There were countless Zionist rallies, letter-writing campaigns, angry editorials in the Jewish press,
The unspeakable reality became the stuff of blockbuster productions and Academy Awards, the awe-ful singularity of it was reduced to a
Studies of the Holocaust now abound, some of them solid ones. There is
The best of the scholarly studies may be the slimmest:
Secularization, social Darwinism, the idea of surplus populations, totalitarian ideology, the modern all-powerful State, technocratic organization, all of that came together at one terrible point: 1933-45. And evil became mundane, ordinary, routine, a step up the career ladder for all the little Adolf Eichmanns of the world. Call it the banality of evil, as
Through the years I would read the books, attend the seminars, listen to the professors and politicians argue about the Nuremberg Trials and the supposed German character, and whether the Jews were victims or accessories to their own murder, change my mind and then back again a dozen times, get sick of the whole subject, then return to it. Till silence opened like a refuge and insight. And sanctuary. By now there may be only one appropriate response to the Holocaust -- a scream that seems to go on forever. And then -- silence.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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