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'You are my witnesses" written on a wall at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Remembering International Holocaust Memorial Day

Image: Pixabay

“What’s that?” she asked me.

A few moments earlier: “What are you reading?”

I was reading a survivor’s testimony of the Holocaust when my friend inquired about its content. I thought this explanation as I have just offered you sufficient – “it’s about a survivor’s experience of the Holocaust” – until she asked me what the Holocaust was.

You’ll most likely think this a rare case, an exception, at best a blip in her memory – or mine. But, and especially amongst millennials, a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust is more common than one might think. Which is why the upcoming international Holocaust Memorial Day remains as important as ever.

I would add, moreover, that international Holocaust Memorial Day not only remains as important as ever but is more important than ever. As well as rising ignorance about the Holocaust, today, and with each year that passes, there are a diminishing number of Holocaust survivors still alive. This renders a problematic future for Holocaust memory: with fewer and fewer of those who experienced it alive to remember the Holocaust on the one hand; and more and more of those who didn’t experience it doubting, misunderstanding or having no memory of the Holocaust on the other; there is an urgent need to remember its memory. That is, an urgent need to reconsider who and what constitutes memory of the Holocaust, especially on dedications like Holocaust Memorial Day.

International Holocaust Memorial Day: Yesterday

Marking 77 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps across occupied Europe, international Holocaust Memorial Day will fall on 27th January 2022. Twenty-two years ago, on 27th January 2000, this day was designated to commemorate the murder of approximately 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Signed into declaration by representatives from 46 governments meeting in Stockholm to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research, the day has been marked internationally ever since. According to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, it is a commitment “to preserv[e] the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust”.

Historically, survivors and their descendants have played a central role in commemorations marking international Holocaust Memorial Day. Whether groups gathering in former concentration camps to bear witness, individuals visiting local synagogues to share their testimonies, or families’ stories of survival being read out and discussed in local schools or services, survivors have been a mark of validity and connection in remembering an otherwise incomprehensible event.

I was fortunate to attend a high school where my headmistress took engagement with Holocaust memory seriously. There were regular assemblies relating a survivor’s story or lesson drawn from the Holocaust; there were annual trips to Berlin and Kraków, tracing the evolution of the Final Solution; and, to mark international Holocaust Memorial Day, there were meetings with individual survivors for every form-class. From these, three moments have informed my memory of the Holocaust in particular.

In the first, I am sitting in an introductory assembly to the Holocaust before we split into form-classes to hear a survivor’s individual testimony. A group of survivors sit at the front. My headmistress is explaining the use of music at camp selections. The hall is silent, reverent. Then a deep voice interrupts this all-girls scene: “Why did they do that? In all these years I can’t understand why they did that? Why did they play music like that?” I have never heard a voice carry such weighted pain as this survivor’s does in his questions.

The second is later that same day. I’m now sitting on a wooden stool in one of the biology labs as a survivor recounts the story of his survival hiding in the woods with his brother. After painting a few scenes in the woods, his face clouds over and words grow halted; heavy, momentary breaks as tears rain down his face. His brother had been caught, murdered. “Please don’t forget my story; my brother. Please remember. Thank you for listening to me.” I can’t shake his story, nor his telling, and write him a letter of thanks and promise – “I won’t forget”.

The third is a year later, on an annual trip to trace the Final Solution through Berlin to Kraków. We are in a church close to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, which we have just toured, and, after offering both Jewish and Christian prayers for the murdered, we are allowed time by ourselves. I look at old photographs of communities displayed in the church foyer. Thinking of the survivors I have spoken to and of my own communities, transposing them into a photograph in front of me, the gravity of what I have just walked through – touched, seen – pulls. “It’s okay to feel this way,” a teacher consoles me. “It means you understand it like you should; not just facts in a textbook at school but a horrific experience”.

Simply dedicating a day to something is no guarantee of its commemoration – as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust well understands

What distinguishes these moments is their confluence around an affective – which is to say: personal; emotive; more-than-cognitive – interaction with the Holocaust as an experience. This is, arguably, a more effective and powerful understanding of the Holocaust than a factual education, because it is premised on empathy not sympathy. It is an understanding of the Holocaust and its historical fact through a visceral feeling of pain, fear, discomfort (et cetera); rather than an understanding of the Holocaust through repeated abstract facts of a multitude and intensity that is beyond understanding. As sociologist Tom Shakespeare writes, “these interactions are not about sympathy [but] about growing awareness of the reality of another’s suffering”. Crucially, this is not about elevating feeling over historical understanding, but maintaining feeling in historical understanding so that its lessons might transcend something past to something everyday. It is about being able to relate to the Holocaust as something that could have happened to me, or someone I know; and could yet happen to us. Indeed, when the Holocaust seems too distant, something unimaginable, overwhelming, I think of these encounters. As Shakespeare writes, his students remember an individual story long after they’ve forgotten a sociology lecture.

This year, over 100 survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps will gather at the site of their former imprisonment on 27th January to commemorate the Holocaust. Elsewhere, at the site of other camps, ghettoes, mass-murders, synagogues, schools, museums (et cetera), similar groups will gather. As many commentators note, this is “the last significant anniversary at which a large number of survivors are expected to be alive and well enough to attend”. In other words: this is one of the last years in which the personal, affective possibility of commemoration facilitated by interaction with survivors will be possible.

International Holocaust Memorial Day: Today

Three years ago, I forgot international Holocaust Memorial Day. The day came and went without deliberation. I was planning my undergraduate dissertation on contemporary commemorations of the Holocaust at the time, and it seemed to all that my head was in a perpetual state of thinking about the Holocaust. But I forgot to remember it beyond this project.

I worry that the possibilities represented by a dedicated day of commemoration face an ever-greater threat at being reduced to just that: a day of commemoration. Officially dedicated, marked in small blueprint in some ready-made calendars and attended by representatives of state and museum, but, in the everyday of an everyday person like me, otherwise forgotten. Just a day. A retweeted 20 characters (“Lest we forget #IHMD”) or reposted icon (“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”), perhaps. But otherwise, and even therein, an abstraction. And the threat of abstraction grows precisely because of the current moment’s aforementioned intersection: fewer living survivors to bear witness, and greater ignorance about the Holocaust amongst those who came after the event.

Of course, simply dedicating a day to something is no guarantee of its commemoration – as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust well understands. Hence their emphasis upon events and activities to mark it. The crucial point is that the nature of these activities, and their commemorative emphasis, may need to be remembered to reflect the dual realities of a world increasingly without first-hand witnesses and with dubious understandings if not outright ignorance about the Holocaust. How do we remember the Holocaust in an affective, personal way without survivors? How do we remember the Holocaust so those who did not experience it can start to understand its experience as part of their own memory?

In 1895, the Lumière brothers premiered Arriveé d’un train, shocking viewers into running out of the theatre for fear of being run over by the approaching train. Since this first premiere of the moving picture, cinematic technologies have been imagined as instruments with the power to suture people into realities apart from their own. Media scholars attribute this power to an ‘art of reality’. This destabilises the constitutive gaps between an audience’s lived reality and the reality depicted on screen, giving the visceral impression of unmediated directness and thence co-experience. Historian Robert Rosenstone thence argues that “in privileging visual and emotional data and simultaneously downplaying the analytic, the motion picture [subtly alters] our very sense of the past”. The implication here is that cinematic technologies can influence not only historical understanding, but also memory.

A year after forgetting it, I marked international Holocaust Memorial Day by attending a university screening of Night Will Fall. The lecture theatre was sparsely populated, and the few fellow audience members that were present were mostly of an older demographic. The documentary film was followed by a short Q+A. There were no survivors present, but the experience of watching this film was absorbing and affective in a way that got me thinking about the possibilities of commemoration beyond the lifetime of the last survivors.

International Holocaust Memorial Day: Tomorrow

Toward the amber-end of 2019 I revisited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the first instalments is a small circular room to the left of the main desk. Titled Reality Check: Walter Sisulu: Accused #2, the installation consists of a few black chairs forming a circle in the centre of the room. Headphones hang with dystopian-looking glasses attached from the ceiling above each chair, and this chair-circle is surrounded by walls of documents and explanatory text. An assistant led me to one of the chairs and showed me how to put the above-hanging headphone-glasses set on, before starting a film. For the next 20 minutes I moved from jail to township to courtroom to home to Robben Island to witness stand with and as Walter Sisulu. Moving my head up down left right behind shifted what I saw, situating me in the various scenes that appeared with the narrative.

This virtual reality installation is the most affecting museum exhibit I have yet encountered. I use both words deliberately: affecting and encountered. It felt as though I was experiencing something of the apartheid, and the contemporary world beyond my headphones and glasses ceased to differentiate from the virtual reality within for the 20-minute duration. As I left the room, I scribbled a question in a notebook I carry for such prompts: Could something like this work with the Holocaust?

The Holocaust has always been a question of memory, imagined by the Nazis as the total eradication of the Jewish race and all traces of its existence besides a few carefully curated museums. After the event, the question of how to remember it has been central to the contradiction of the Holocaust. Initially, this was a matter of education, survivor’s guilt, retribution and representation. At the turn of the century, particular interest in the inheritance and transmission of trauma led to investigations of Holocaust survivors’ relatives and the traumatic memories they (might have) held. Emerging thence, theories of ‘post’ memory suggested individuals who did not experience the Holocaust could still have a memory of it by encountering its experience so affectively through a photographic, literary or narrated encounter as to take on the experience as part of their own lived repertoire.

Developing this idea further, literature scholar Alison Landsberg argues that memory can be not just ‘post’ but also ‘prosthetic’. With this alternative prefix, those remembering the Holocaust need not have any relation to the event or any of its survivors. Instead, anyone who encounters the Holocaust in a transferential space like a cinema or interactive museum might take on its memory through affective transference. In other words, affective media like cinematic technologies can suture people into the experience of the Holocaust they depict, melding their present and this past into a kind of prosthetic memory. Of course, and crucially, this is not to say that someone can somehow ‘experience’ the Holocaust; it is about enabling an experience that feels like memory and thus encouraging empathetic thinking.

If we apply this theory to my scribbled question – Would something like this work for the Holocaust? – and return to the problem of increasing ignorance about the Holocaust at the same time as the number of living survivors falls, we find a possible and as-yet under-utilised possibility for the future of Holocaust commemoration. If the historical importance of survivors in Holocaust commemoration has been witnessing to the affective experiences behind, between and beyond unimaginable statistics and abstract facts; if cinematic technologies represent experiential media that suture temporalities and facilitate memories; if affective transference through a mediated encounter allows someone who did not live through an event to take its experience on as a prosthetic kind of memory; and, central to these contingencies, if the future of Holocaust commemoration rests upon remembering its witnesses beyond the generation that witnessed it first-hand; then perhaps the key to the future of international Holocaust Memorial Day lies in encounters with affective representations of the Holocaust in digital cinematic media.

Remembering International Holocaust Memorial Day

As we approach a three-quarter-centenary since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we do so facing a thinning horizon of witness; ourselves an ever denser body of post-event, dubious in our ‘post-truth’, and in desperate need of an alternate means to remember. It is important to preface here that this is not to say that without survivors we are without witness, evidence or memory. As any historian knows, a plurality of sources is needed to understand the past – the Holocaust being incredibly well documented by the Nazi’s. Psychologists would add, moreover, that human memory itself is inherently unreliable; making witnesses alone a fallible base for historical truth. Neither should we substitute nor prioritise affect for cause and effect, especially in the case of learning the lessons such as represented by an event like the Holocaust. What I am saying, however, is that the role played by survivors in Holocaust commemoration is unique in the possibility they represent that those who did not experience the event might begin to understand its experience more empathetically. As the number of living survivors falls, international Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely reminder of the necessary question, what then?

Then, I would answer, digital cinematic media step in to remember the Holocaust as an experiential, affective and, as much as possible, tangible event. Whether virtual reality installations, travelling or museum-based, depicting a survivor’s particular experience; community-, institution- or event-based screenings of film representations of Holocaust experiences, fictionalised or otherwise; or digital records of survivors sharing their story, such technologies more than anything can begin to approximate the affective role of survivors in Holocaust commemoration thus far. And indeed they must.

This is not a suggestion that is without precedent. The last two decades have seen a gradual but steady shift toward memorial designs that go beyond the traditionally monumental to the experimentally affective; like Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005) for example, this shift is premised on visitors engaging with memory in an individualised, visceral and active experience rather than simply looking at an abstract statuesque dedication. At the same time, museum curatorial infrastructures and archival facilities have experimented with the possibilities of digital technologies to increasing effect; the British Library, Weiner Library and Holocaust Memorial Day Trust all boast extensive archives of oral history recordings, for example, whilst London’s proposed new Holocaust memorial and learning centre intends to make extensive use of digital recordings showing survivor’s telling their stories. In a more immediate sense, both the BBC and History Channel, alongside other television networks, have planned schedules coinciding with this year’s international Holocaust Memorial Day to remember the event through documentary, film, and interview programmes.

Elie Wiesel, a renowned Italian Chemist and survivor of the Holocaust who extensively published his experiences in fictive and testimonial accounts, wrote that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”. International Holocaust Memorial Day is about remembering these lives and the lessons of past genocides. Whilst this duty has bound survivors and their relatives historically, the current junctions of doubt and distance shift the burden of remembering the lives affected by the Holocaust and learning the lessons of past genocides to us and the technological tools we have at hand to do so.