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Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Katharina von Kellenbach

Holocaust Remembrance Day was originally declared a state holiday in Israel in 1951. The date, the 27th of the month of Nissan, was chosen in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In the United States, a week-long series of “Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust” was ratified by US Congress in 1979 to coincide with Yom HaShoah, which falls sometime during April or May. This year, it is held on 8 April 2013. In Israel, the United States, and Canada (which followed suit in 2000), Yom HaShoah remembrances are built on the sacred obligation to commemorate the martyrs and victims, to honor the survivors, and to pay respects to the liberators.

In Europe, on the other hand, Holocaust memory is inevitably bound up with troubling questions about perpetration and collaboration. For every life that was taken, someone pulled the trigger, someone watched, someone profited, and someone processed the paperwork. Wherever the Holocaust is commemorated in the European community, multiple layers of individual and corporate guilt are evoked. The presence of this guilt, even in the third and fourth generation, makes Holocaust remembrance awkward. The inability to come to terms with guilt for the Jewish genocide may explain why it took the European Union until 2013 to put the “International Holocaust Remembrance Day” on its official calendar.

Since 1945, European governments had developed various memorial strategies that gingerly sidestepped the problem of personal, institutional, and communal complicity and collusion in Nazi killing programs. Many constructed narratives of victimization and/or heroic resistance that were designed to alleviate moral qualms. The most infamous examples involved the governments of Austria, East Germany, and Poland, all of whom claimed victim status at the hands of (fascist) Nazi Germany. Such claims to victimization allowed individuals and institutions to deny responsibility for collaboration in the Holocaust. West Germany was the least successful in claiming the victim mantel—though not for lack of trying. Naturally, these victim narratives of oppression and powerlessness were not entirely wrong. But they obscured and falsified local histories of betrayal and persecution of Jews at the hand their Gentile Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, French, Austrian neighbors. No matter how much a country or particular persons suffered at the hands of the German Nazi regime, they could still be active in the brutalization of their Jewish neighbors.

The European Union declared 27 January its day of remembrance, following the 2005 resolution by the United Nations that also designated 27 January as “International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.” Notably, this day does not follow the Jewish calendar, but marks the day of liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army in 1945.

One million people were killed in the extermination camp of Auschwitz; its name has become synonymous with the Nazi achievement of turning mass murder into an industrialized process using innovative technologies, such as gas chambers and crematories. At no other extermination site were so many people killed at the hands of so few. In Auschwitz, the inmates themselves were forced to become cogs in the machinery of death and recruited to perform the grueling labor of extermination. This death camp was explicitly designed to shield SS-personnel from the human costs of killing—although there was still unspeakable brutality committed by individuals. But the focus on Auschwitz allows European officials, once again, to sidestep local histories of collusion and complicity. In its extremity, Auschwitz allows disassociation and distancing from the human ordinariness of those who plan, administrate, and commit mass murder. Surely, the brutes in charge of that camp could not have been Ordinary Men, to quote Christopher Browning’s book, and could not have lived as ordinary businessmen, doctors, teachers, and policemen in the post-war world (which they did).

The Holocaust was not committed by an alien species of evil Nazis, who invaded, hijacked, and occupied various countries and forced their populations to stand by and watch the unfolding of genocide. On the contrary, the systematic murder of six million required the active participation of many people across Europe, who were convinced that discriminating, humiliating, disowning, ghettoizing, enslaving, deporting, and killing Jews was the proper and profitable thing to do. Unless their perspective and precise nature of culpable wrongdoing can be openly articulated, the memory of the Holocaust will continue to be affected and infected by denial and evasion. It is not possible to honor the victims without acknowledging the perpetrators. Their guilt manifests in the compulsive drive toward exculpation which seeps into and distorts national memorial strategies.

It may not be a bad thing that the world now observes two separate dates in remembrance of the Holocaust, one anchored in the Jewish calendar, the other rooted in the Western calendar of the liberation of Auschwitz. But unless we strive to connect the histories of victimization and perpetration and join in commemoration as descendants of Jewish victims and Gentile perpetrators, we will not be able to repair this rift or build a reconciled future.

Katharina von Kellenbach is Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and author of Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings and the forthcoming The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators.

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Image credit: A lit Yom Hashoah candle in a dark room on Yom Hashoah. Photo by Valley2city. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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