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‘You Shall Never Be a Bystander.’ How We Learn About the Holocaust When the Last Survivors Are Gone

7 minute read
Gundar-Goshen is an author and a clinical psychologist, based in Tel Aviv. She is an award-winning screenwriter. Her new novel is The Wolf Hunt.

On the morning of January 27th, 1945, the first Red Army soldier walked into Auschwitz death camp, and the 7,500 remaining prisoners knew they were finally free. More than 1.1 million people died in the camp, and those who survived are now facing a new struggle – the fight over remembrance. January 27th is not just the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is also the last major Holocaust anniversary where survivors may be alive to tell their stories.

When the last survivor will leave this world, there will be no more people able to say, “I’ve been there.” No more testimonies. Of course, one can always open a history book, but most people are likely to rely on cinematic representations made by Hollywood. Without living memories, pop culture will inevitably become the main source of knowledge for many of us. That’s not entirely bad – pop culture can actually be a powerful way of remembrance. Holocaust films make sure that the memories will stay even after all witnesses are gone. Spielberg’s “Schindler List” for instance, is still screened in many schools across the world, as a way to introduce the new generation to the horrors of the past. How can you grasp a number like 1.5 million kids murdered in the Holocaust? You can’t. Hollywood takes this number and turns it into one, memorable image – the girl in the red dress, for instance. Many authors and filmmakers dealing with the subject feel it’s their moral mission to make sure that the survivors’ stories are heard, and that the crimes will never be forgotten.

But at the same time, pop culture representations of the Holocaust can easily create a biased version of history. Counting on Hollywood to keep history alive is a bit naïve. Currently on screens is JoJo Rabbit, where a German boy eventually saves a Jewish girl, with the silent help of a Nazi officer. The Boy in the Striped Pajama also presented us with a German boy who tries to help his Jewish friend. Every Man Dies Alone became an international bestseller, depicting the German resistance during the war. If you’re a teenager living on a diet of pop culture, it seems more Germans opposed the war than actually took part in it. Of course, a single film is just a stone in the mosaic of collective memory. One stone is not enough to affect the color, meaning or quality of the whole. But when more and more stones are added into the mosaic, it eventually changes.

As long as the survivors are here with us, there’s still a solid barrier between the facts and the stories. We can immerse into the alternative history of Inglorious Bastards because the living history of the survivors awaits outside the cinema hall. Just as a child can immerse into a story, knowing that his parents will be there when he’s done. Today, when a filmmaker twists history for his own interest, he knows he’ll have to face the criticism of those who were actually there. But what happens once the survivors are gone?

One might say that the remembrance of Auschwitz won’t be as affected as it first seems: the collective memory of the death camp is guarded by much stronger forces. Indeed, Auschwitz never was just the sum of its victims; right after the war ended the memory of the death camp became globalized, retold and reframed. The nations turned it into a symbol. At the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation, the nations are still fighting over the symbol’s meaning: Was Auschwitz a German crime committed on Polish grounds? Or was it only possible because of the support of the anti-Semitic polish population? Should we remember the united allies as the ones who liberated the camp, or as the ones who knew about the mass killing of Jews but did nothing to stop it?

These are not just historical questions, but a cause of heightened international quarrels, even today. The Polish president has decided not to attend the national remembrance ceremony for Auschwitz liberation, held in Jerusalem, as a protest for not being one of the speakers, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is one. Putin recently claimed that Poland cooperated with the Nazis, calling the Polish ambassador to Germany at the period “an antisemitic pig.” Does Putin and Duda truly care so much about Polish Anti-Semitism in the forties, or is it that both nations turn to second world war to validate their moral superiority today?

The past is never just the past, and when politicians talk about the past, you can be sure they’re talking about the present. The collective memory of the Second World War constructs different countries’ national identity, and serves to justify current policies. Putin has had his eye on Belarus for quite a long time, and some suspect that his accusations against Poland, portraying Russia as a victim of the war, is an excuse to annex it in the near future. Being Israeli, I often hear our right-wing government justifying militant actions against the Palestinian “to prevent Auschwitz from ever repeating itself.”

If the memory of the war has always been reframed by politicians and filmmakers, what impact do the real survivors have? As an author writing about Second World War, I knew some of my readers will know better than me what happened, and I feared their judgment. And true, the collective memory of the war was never free of interests, but the living memory of the survivors have always had an existence of its own, a sort of independent territory. Even though the collective memory was shaped and manipulated by political and artistic influences, the survivors maintained a “reservation” of real life experience. It is part of the collective memory, and yet, it is differentiated, a reservation surrounded by boundaries, protected from the outside. And this reservation is about to disappear.

Growing up in Israel, I, like many students, met Holocaust survivors at least once a year, starting in the first grade. An old man or an old lady would come into the class and tell their story, and our teachers told us to listen with care, as if we were given a family treasure that we have to cherish for the future. The visitors showed us the numbers on their arms. Some of them told us that they were our age when their parents were murdered. When the survivors left the class, some teachers told us that the lesson to be taught of Auschwitz for a Jewish kid is, “you shall never be a victim.” But I still remember the history teacher in high school, who added another commandment to her class of Israeli teens: “You shall never be a bystander.”

With the decay of living memories, it will be our responsibility as a society to decide what will Auschwitz stand for. The true remembrance of the Holocaust requires us not only to condemn those responsible for the crimes of the past, but also to acknowledge that each one of us might be responsible for the crimes of the future, either as executers, or as bystanders.

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