Soon after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, which ended World War II in Europe, the Allies began efforts to seek justice, to hold the guilty accountable, and to establish an international rule of law, a process that was explored in Chapter 10. The trials at Nuremberg were just the first attempt to respond meaningfully to the war and the systematic murders that we now call the Holocaust. 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, has 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.”
In addition to the Nuremberg trials, new institutions, laws, policies, and ideas were developed in response to the death and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust. Among these were the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, and the concept of genocide—a new term to describe a crime that before was nameless. But the legacy of the Holocaust consists of more than institutions, laws, and ideas; what happened then has continued 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.
The readings in this chapter span the period from 1945 to the twenty-first century, reflecting ways that legacy and memory are made evident in the lives of individuals, in institutions, in memorials, and on city streets. Teachers should select readings that best match their aims and objectives as well as the questions and interests of their students.