Last week, the world solemnly reflected on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The name “Auschwitz” itself certainly should weigh heavily on the hearts of many, as it has become synonymous with not only the events of the Holocaust but with the dark human capacity for unthinkable horrors. The practices that took place in Auschwitz are considered by many to be one of the lowest points of human history. Thus, the liberation of this notorious concentration camp becomes one of humanity’s greatest victories: a profound symbol of good overcoming evil.
In solemn times like this, we tend to frame our reflections in the form of remembrance. It would seem fitting: we must remember the dead souls, the lives ruined and the generations forever lost to the Holocaust.
However, the nature of the Holocaust itself is very complex. And because of this, remembrance is simply not enough.
We apply the simple act of remembrance to many historic tragedies. We remember the Irish Troubles. We remember the Great Depression. We remember Pearl Harbor. Despite the differences between those tragedies, each is honored in the form of remembrance. But if remembrance is enough for them, why can it not be enough for the Holocaust?
What makes it different is that those tragedies and others like them are grounded in the past. They are tragic events mark static points in history to be remembered. But remembrance implies a contentment with the past, which becomes an issue when addressing the Holocaust: the past is not quite done.
We will always be capable of the unthinkable.
The term “Holocaust witness” is complex. It can mean someone who survived through the Holocaust. It can mean a family member or loved one of a Holocaust victim. It can even refer to the children or grandchildren of a victim. But despite the various identities of a witness, they each share a similar role: preserving the lives, memories, and tragedies of the Holocaust victims.
For a witness, simply remembering the victims is not enough. The goal is not just to honor them, but to preserve them. Each victim had a life before the Holocaust: valuable events in their lives, loved ones that were dear to them, and ambitions that were never achieved. The Holocaust witness takes these aspects of the victims’ lives and preserves them through memory and literature. This way, the victims are able to live on after death.
Holocaust literature often makes careful use of elliptical prose. This writing style, usually associated with Hemingway and his philosophy of leaving the truth unsaid, creates an unfinished or foreboding tone to suggest a sense of something more beyond what is written. Holocaust literature uses this effect to highlight how time is not a remedy to the tragedy. But more profoundly, the elliptical effect highlights how the Holocaust’s shadow can yet reappear.
It is the human condition for us to struggle with morality, a struggle that has brought humanity its greatest triumphs and its gravest faults.
We like to think that the Holocaust was a tragic anomaly. This a rather optimistic and, to an extent, ignorant view of humanity. We will always be capable of the unthinkable. It is the human condition for us to struggle with morality, a struggle that has brought humanity its greatest triumphs and its gravest faults. To deny this becomes the greatest folly of humankind, as a failure to recognize our flaws will always lead to greater failure.
That is why remembrance is inadequate when dealing with the Holocaust. When we simply remember, we concern ourselves with a reverence of the past rather than looking at how the lessons from such a tragedy can be applied to the future. Our response to Auschwitz should not be a passive reaction only incited on anniversaries. Rather, our response should be active and continuous, eager for a culture in which something like the Holocaust remains unthinkable.
The victims of Auschwitz deserve more than remembrance. They deserve to be kept in the hearts and minds of all those who empathize for future generations to come. Through participating in this effort, we can try to prevent another Auschwitz from ever happening again.