“Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Do we, as a species, collectively learn from our mistakes? The Holocaust
is one in a string of genocides from the burning of the heretics in the
15th century to the carnage in Darfur today. Has the unspeakable become
the unstoppable? Volumes have been written on the horrors of war. Museums,
memorials, and testimonials have kept the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Witness has been borne, yet the slaughter continues. Is remembrance
futile? Humanity remembers the atrocities of the Holocaust, yet repeats
the sadistic series of events that lead to murder and destruction. Can I,
a high school student, do anything, to end the cycle of genocide, while
others more influential than I have had such little effect?
The Holocaust, though unparalleled in its
scope, ferocity and organization, has many counterparts in history. I
lived my first four years within a stone's throw of an Indochinese refugee
camp where my parents worked. There lived the displaced, including
survivors of the Cambodian holocaust. Being too young to realize the
magnitude of what I saw, it was not until later that I came to understand
genocide and its repetitive theme throughout history. This understanding
began when I read an anthology of oral histories that my parents compiled
during their time working in the refugee camp. In one narrative, Khour
Chanta, a young Cambodian man who lived under the Khmer Rouge says:
"I had never seen such hard work, the lack of food, the savage threats, no
right to speak about the old things in the old days, I determined that I
would rather die by working than be captured and killed, because the
punishment by which they killed was very savage. From one day to another,
I thought of nothing but the death that would come to me very soon. I
couldn’t tell people in the world, no one. If there were international
journalists in Cambodia in Pol Pot's time, I would have much evidence. I
wanted people to know."
What Mr. Khour rails against, as much as the brutality, is his inability
to get his story to the world, to bear witness.
On a recent family trip to New York, I visited the Museum of Jewish
Heritage with my grandmother and parents. Amidst the testimonials of
horror, my father told me how except for the foresight of my great-great
grandfather, my grandparents and great grandparents might have been part
of the museum. My great-great grandfather, who had already immigrated to
the U.S., sent steamship tickets to my great grandparents in Poland. They
were able to get out just eight days before the Nazi invasion. My father
told me that my grandmother had requested that I be named David. This was
the name of her cousin who died in a concentration camp in Poland, and it
is now my middle name. Suddenly, the exhibits took on a personal meaning,
the people were my people, and their stories were connected to me. I
realized my obligation to remember, and to cause others to remember as
well, so that the past would not become our future.
With genocide so common as to be unremarkable, there are those who argue
that at a certain level, holocaust memorials are counterproductive. An
article in the online journal, The Ethical Spectacle declares:
The irony is that such places may undermine their mission: they may make
us complacent. We went, we saw, we suffered and felt great indignation,
and now we have left the museum and may forget…we may buy buttons, which
say "Remember" and "Never Again." These buttons might as well say, "Self
deception" and "Always," because it is happening again, it has always been
happening, and we are doing nothing. (Wallace pars.11)
This article is missing the bigger picture. While correct in denouncing
complacency, it misattributes the cause. Holocaust Museums do not lull us
into complacency; they educate, and make us aware. They are crucial in
making us cognizant of the roots and horror of that terrible time.
Awareness is the enemy of apathy and must precede action. In his book, The
Sea is Never Full, Elie Wiesel writes: "I will become militant. I will
teach, share, bear witness. I will reveal and try to mitigate the victim's
solitude." (qtd. in the Beth Shalom Holocaust Book Library)
Wiesel’s words become my responsibility. Being the only Jewish student in
my school, I am frequently asked such questions as, “ Why don’t you eat
pork?” or “What are those funny hats you wear?” and even “Do Jews have a
better sense of smell because of their big noses?” I realize that my
classmates are just curious about a religion and tradition that is
different from their own. I answer these questions without rancor to
dispel the stereotypes surrounding Judaism. I can educate others.
Every April, I am involved in ceremonies to commemorate Holocaust
Remembrance Month. Once, I read excerpts from survivors of the Shoah
during a memorial ceremony. As a member of the student council, I make
sure that Holocaust Remembrance Month is observed during the school year.
Whether I am educating my peers during a classroom discussion, talking
about my trip to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, or writing this essay,
every step I take helps one other person to better understand the causes
of the Holocaust, and in this way, I offer a venue of empathy and
understanding. Hopefully, my attempts will not be futile.
We must remain aware. Small steps make others mindful, empathetic and
committed to prevent future holocausts. The obligation to remember no
longer rests only on the shoulders of the survivors; it is imperative that
those who have heard their stories and visited the museums make those who
have not realize that the annihilation of human beings is not an option.
Remembrance is not futile, it is imperative. We must keep the memory of
the Holocaust alive, until the words “Never Again” become the reality of
Khour, Chanta. For Freedom: Personal
Histories of Indochinese Refugees, Ed. Laurie Kuntz, et al. Manila: Center
for Applied Linguistics, 1987.
Wallace, Jonathan. “Genocide—an Eternal Crimson Braid” The Ethical
Spectacle:11 pars. April 1995< http://www.spectacle.org w.spectacle.org/495/geno.html>
Wiesel, Elie. The Sea Is Never Full. http://www.holocaustbookstore.net/