The Power of Memory
By Noah DeBonis
West Palm Beach, FL


 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Santayana


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." (Khour 17)

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 our time.



Works Cited

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/
 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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