The Book Club

The Meanings of Monuments

Dear Philip,

Great question: Is the choice really between any memory and comfortable forgetting? Or can there also be a higher critical standard to which we hold kinds of Holocaust memory accountable? My preference, cited by Tony Judt, actually comes from my first book’s discussion of Sylvia Plath’s seeming appropriations of Holocaust memory to describe her own inner pain and torment. Rather than legislating such memory, what is permitted and what is forbidden, I suggested that we look to see how it has been done, to what ends, and judge it accordingly. This is really to advocate a case-by-case approach, I suppose. We can agree on the standard provided by great works like Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue,” or Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man . But what about everything else? The pope and Willy Brandt both kneel at the foot of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, while art historians recoil from even looking at it. Israelis and Hollywood loved Life Is Beautiful, while Art Spiegelman and David Denby (among others) hated it. Schindler’s List seems to be most politicians’ choice for the greatest of all Holocaust films, but not if you ask Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah or, again, Art Spiegelman.

Here you might rightly argue, again, that aesthetic judgment is one thing, historical judgment another, that there must be some standard for arbitrating between sound and unsound history, between scrupulous and unscrupulous memory. And here I would agree, to some extent, that as critics and historians, we are still arbiters of good and bad history, trivial and profound memory. But only to a point, after which it becomes our jobs not to ask whether or not something is merely great or terrible, but to explore the kinds of historical understanding being created and to what ends such history is being remembered.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I enjoyed, somewhat perversely, your other New York Times Magazine article from a few years back on what it was exactly that school groups were “learning” from their visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. If I recall correctly, you found that they basically had confirmed for them what they already knew, or in the case of young students, what their teachers told them it all meant. In some of these young minds, therefore, the Holocaust Museum merely illustrated the terrible wrath of God toward Jewish unbelievers in Christ. With this “lesson” in mind, I have to agree that the whole notion of taking “lessons” from the Holocaust is problematic–even as we continue, for better and worse, to “learn” from such history.

And finally on a further “lesson of the Holocaust”: In an explicit reference to the mass murder of Jews, a Nazi leader once proclaimed to his officers that “this would remain a glorious but unwritten page of German history.” That is, the Holocaust, like any genocide, was being designed and planned as a self-consuming Holocaust. It was to destroy both a people and memory of itself as an event, leaving behind as few traces as possible. In so doing, the Germans hoped to build deniability into the very crime they were perpetrating. It’s clear that Serb President Slobodan Milosevic has drawn this lesson from his Nazi forebears. Not only did his army and police units work furiously in the last days of the bombing to hide and destroy evidence of their crimes against ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but his propaganda machine sought no less assiduously to deny the crimes altogether. The denial of genocide and the refusal of its memory are two fundamental characteristics of genocide, it seems.

For a momen, I’d like to go back to the end of your first installment on Novick’s book. You ask whether we should just say “Whatever” to the fact that millions of Americans a year now visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.–while there still isn’t a memorial there to American slavery. This question goes right to the heart of a nation’s reasons for making a particular past part of its official landscape. When the German government asked me to serve on a five-member Findungskommission for its proposed national “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe,” it was largely because I had explained in several lectures there and op-ed pieces that I was reassured by its national memorial paralysis. When has any nation ever made its own crimes against humanity part of its national reason for being, part of its national memorial landscape? Here I had asked in front of a German audience, “Where, for example, is America’s national memorial to millions of Africans enslaved and murdered? How can it be that on our national Mall, the actual site of slave auctions for many years, there is no sign of our national shame? Where is Japan’s national memorial to the victims of Nanking? Where was the Soviet Union’s national memorial to the millions who died during Stalin’s purges? That the German Bundestag has actually voted to build a gigantic national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in the center of its reunited capital is an amazing and unprecedented turn of events.”

But in so doing, the German government is also marking an absolute distinction between itself and the murderous regime it succeeds, which is partly why it has taken more than 50 years for such a memorial to come into being. Similarly, the American government’s decision to build a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum just off the Mall was also taken at least partly to define what it means to be American by graphically illustrating what it means not to be American, enshrining American ideals as they counterpoint those of the Nazi regime. In fact, I believe a national museum of African-American history is now being planned for a site just off the Mall. And while such a museum is clearly justified, it will ultimately celebrate the contribution of African-Americans to American culture and history, thereby celebrating America as a land of opportunity–even for former slaves. But will there be a memorial to the shame of slavery itself, to the millions of lives lost and nearly unrecorded? Because there is no place in America’s idealized story of itself for such a crime, I doubt it.

To the brilliant lines you quote from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, I would like to close with two lines from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, “Farewell”: “Your history gets in the way of my memory,” and later, “My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.”

Thanks, Philip, for all your thoughts.