As students explored in the previous lesson, judgement and justice were crucial components of the aftermath of the Holocaust. Testimony in the Nuremberg trials provided the world with clear evidence of the human devastation wrought by the Nazis and preserved this information in the historical record. In this way, these trials were a step towards another stage of the post-war process: remembrance. This process of reckoning, or coming to terms, with the history of the Holocaust is one that continues today among historians, survivors and their descendants, politicians, citizens, and students. As American author James Baldwin has said, in writing about America’s history of slavery:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.
Baldwin suggests that we won’t really understand history or ourselves unless we consider how the past is ‘present’ in our world. And the Holocaust, which historians describe as not merely a significant moment in history but a ‘collapse in human civilization’
and a ‘symbol of evil’
, exerts an especially powerful force. Author Eva Hoffman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, observed:
Sixty years after the Holocaust took place, our reckoning with this defining event is far from over. Indeed, as this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase.
There are many ways in which individuals, groups, and nations, in Germany and around the world, have confronted the memory of the Holocaust. Some countries, including Germany and France, have made Holocaust denial a crime, punishable by a fine and imprisonment. Governments have also encouraged or mandated education about the Holocaust. German schools are required to teach their students about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, and in addition to classroom learning, most German students visit either a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial.
Scholars, journalists, survivors, and novelists have helped the public remember the Holocaust through their writing. When Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the chairman of the Nobel committee remarked, ‘Through his books, Elie Wiesel has given us not only an eyewitness account of what happened, but also an analysis of the evil powers which lay behind the events.’
Another way that communities around the world have remembered the Holocaust is through building memorials and monuments. These buildings are created for many reasons: to preserve the past, to honour heroes (such as the resisters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the rescuers of Le Chambon), to commemorate tragedies, and to inspire action or reflection. These monuments raise questions about appropriate ways to study and remember the Holocaust. To what extent can any memorial help us truly understand the experiences of victims of the Holocaust? How can we symbolise the vast number of victims while still honouring each unique life that was lost – the schoolchild, the aunt, the tailor, the physicist, the sister? Who should decide how the Holocaust is represented and remembered – what symbols are used, what facts are presented, and whose stories are told?
As the process of reckoning and remembrance continues to unfold, one thing is certain: What happened then continues to have a profound influence on the lives of individuals to this day. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, there is a difference between history and memory: ‘History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. ... Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.’
Survivors, witnesses, the descendants of those who lived this history, and all those who learn about it today face the question of how to remember the past and how that memory might shape our understanding of ourselves and our present world.