"Remembering" The Holocaust

Holocaust history, memory and art.

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Reprinted with permission from Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.

Some people want to forget where they've been; other people want to remember where they've never been.

--Eli Cohen and Gila Almagor, from their film, Under the Domin Tree


How is a post-Holocaust generation of artists supposed to “remember” events they never experienced directly? Born after Holocaust history into the time of its memory only, a new, media‑savvy generation of artists rarely presumes to represent these events outside the ways they have vicariously known and experienced them.

This post‑war generation, after all, cannot remember the Holocaust as it actually occurred. All they remember, all they know of the Holocaust, is what the victims have passed on to them in their diaries, what the survivors have remembered to them in their memoirs. They remember not actual events, but the countless histories, novels, and poems of the Holocaust they have read, the photographs, movies, and video testimonies they have seen over the years. They remember long days and nights in the company of survivors, listening to their harrowing tales, until their lives, loves, and losses seem grafted onto their own life stories.

Coming of age after--but indelibly shaped by--the Holocaust, this genera­tion of artists, writers, architects, and even composers does not attempt to represent events they never knew immediately but instead portray their own, necessarily hyper‑mediated experiences of memory. It is a generation no 1onger willing, or able, to recall the Holocaust separately from the ways it has been passed down to them.

By portraying the Holocaust as a “vicarious past,” these artists insist on maintaining a distinct boundary between their work and the testimony of their parents' generation. Such work recognizes their parents' need to testify to their experiences on the one hand, even to put the Holocaust “behind them.” But by calling attention to their vicarious relationship to events, the next generation ensures that their “post‑memory” of events remains an unfinished, ephemeral process, not a means toward definitive answers to impossible questions.

Moreover, what further distinguishes these artists from their parents' generation is their categorical rejection of art's traditional redemptory function in the face of catastrophe. For these artists, the notion that such suffering might be redeemed by its aesthetic reflection, or that the terrible void left behind by the murder of Europe's Jews might be compensated by a nation's memorial forms, is simply intolerable on both ethical and historical grounds.

At the ethical level, this generation believes that squeezing beauty or pleasure from such events afterwards is not so much a benign reflection of the crime as it is an extension of it. At the historical level, these artists find that the aesthetic, religious, and political linking of destruction and redemption may actually have justified such terror in the killers' minds.

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James E. Young

James E. Young is Professor of English and Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.