The memory of the past as a possibility for the future

Simona Merkinaitė. Photo by Evgenias Levin /

Those who escaped from the grip of darkness sought to teach us to look in both directions – not to forget the victims, but at the same time to take responsibility for the future. This is the most important and still unlearned lesson of the Holocaust for today.

The writer of Jewish origin, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who won several prestigious literary awards, said in an interview that he doubts whether he managed to write the only and most important book he was supposed to write. It was his mission as a European Jew and as a world writer to convey what was beyond human ability to imagine and find.

The courage of the victim

Like other Jewish survivors, Elie Wiesel’s stories are marked by the virtue of courage. It is not only the courage to return once again to the darkest moment of one’s life, but also the determination to reveal oneself to the world as weak, distorted by hunger, cold and loss; a determination to reveal what it means to feel less than human. Wiesel, like many other authors commemorating the Holocaust, speaks of self-alienation. It is the courage to write an autobiography and not be a hero, but a victim fighting for the last crumb of bread.

Looking from the distance of time, the writer no longer recognizes himself and doubts whether it is possible to recover himself after freeing himself from the grip of death. The courage to expose oneself in this way against a world that has betrayed unites many stories of survivors. It is the courage to surrender to the possibility of the future. This courage will be recognized by the children and grandchildren of the survivors, despite the lost humanity of trust – the courage to start new families and rebuild trust, rebuild homes and build community.

The stories of both E. Wiesl and other Holocaust witnesses have become a bridge between the past and the present today. The decision to reveal oneself to one’s self represented a chance to regain one’s humanity, and for many it became a life duty for those who disappeared without a trace. The stories helped guide the “survivor” guilt. But looking to the future is no less important. “Never again” is “a promise and a commitment,” said Wiesel, reflecting on his mission as a writer. So the stories of the survivors are looking in two directions. Those who returned to the darkness, every now and then telling of the horrors they experienced and revealing the wounds of their souls and bodies, did not do so to become idols. Rather, it is an invitation to take care of our own environment so that similar tragedies can be avoided.

Elie Wiesel. EPA photo

The history of the Holocaust testifies that crimes reach gigantic proportions not when evil-seeking monsters and sadists are allowed to “run amok” with impunity, but when ordinary people become indifferent to their surroundings; when a significant number of people simply turn away from what is happening and thus simply allow evil to exist. Indifference has allowed ghettos and death zones to grow in the heart of cities, separated by fences, where not only laws but also basic humanity cease to apply.

“Never Again” should be the point where the past and the future merge into one common line. This point is the present, the person standing between the past and the future. Unfortunately, this commitment and promise has turned into a mere empty political slogan. Often, it is simply turned into a direct criticism of the government, in which the shadow of totalitarian control and the powerlessness and humiliation of the common man can be seen. It is enough to recall the protests against the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, where there were abundant references to the Holocaust, concentration camps and ghettos. The tendency to turn the Holocaust into a commodity and loosely interpreted slogans is not only a sign of disrespect for the victims, but also a distortion of reality, erasing the boundaries between what is evil and what is simply unacceptable to us. This trend also shows that we have not yet learned the lesson of history.

The purpose of telling what happened was to give courage to those of us in the present. It is the courage to act when evil begins to grow and spread again. Courage to not be afraid to stand out and protest against the evil happening before our eyes. The warning is passed on to future generations as a lesson in being mindful of our everyday lives, those circumstances and conditions that can eventually begin to destroy our societies from within.

Generally speaking, visiting museums and buying books about Jewish history is not enough memory. Survivors told their story and that of their relatives and neighbors so that memory does not turn into just numbers and statistics, so we too must take personal responsibility for the past. And this applies to everyone – both victims and executioners, as well as passive observers and witnesses. The memories of all of them are important because they form a complicated reconstruction of the picture of truth. One of the lessons of the Holocaust for the present is precisely that of the fragile line between happy everyday life and utter darkness, between observer and executioner. Moreover, these boundaries themselves move and transform historically. The fact that I can speak from the victims’ perspective today is just an accident of life. I am not a victim, I am just a person spreading the memory of victims. What each of us will be will be answered by history, by future generations who will tell a new story about the present.

The Holocaust in the Face of Today’s War

Today, it is difficult to look at what is happening right next door, in Ukraine, without feeling how usually apathy can turn into passive collaboration, and in the future, denial of reality. Of course, history does not repeat itself, but in the past, the Jewish death camps were not a reproduction of the forms of genocide known to mankind before, but a new method of mass extermination of people. But is it possible not to feel how the 20th century is pulsating? The memory of the victims of the Holocaust, when the world once again lives its daily routine and routine, although it knows and sees what is happening next to it? Don’t you feel like we are once again choosing to forget what happened?

The risk of betraying the promise to the victims today arises for those societies that take political guilt for the past, first of all Germany, but also for other Western countries, which today can be proud of cherishing the memory of the victims of European Jews. Does being a passive observer, not an executioner, also mean completely freeing yourself from responsibility? After all, the fact that a brutal war is happening nearby, the destruction of civilians requires our response and for those we promised not to forget. It is impossible to take the blame for the past, but react passively or even hostilely, like some circles of German intellectuals, to Bucha, Borodyanka, Izium, Mariupol. It is hard not to think that it is the people of Israel who should be most outraged by Russia’s crimes in Ukraine today, but here there is little pressure for a hard political stance. In the face of the war in Ukraine today, we cannot console ourselves with a clear conscience that we are nurturing the 20th century. memory of crime victims.

Ukraine, Borodianka, 2022 April 12 Photo by Sergej Dolzhenka/EPA-EFE

Rabbi Meyr Stambler from Dnipro, who has lived and worked in Ukraine for three decades, put his wife and children on a train traveling to the West after February 24, and promised to join them in a couple of days. But he didn’t even intend to do that. According to Stambler, he had never lied to his wife or broken the Sabbath in his life until that fateful day. But the struggle between good and evil, the duty to the Jewish community here, demanded that both transgressions be committed at the same time.

In this act, one can see not only inspiring courage, but also a sign of living respect for the past, taking responsibility for the present in the name of a different future. In the present moment, everyone becomes equal – the grandchildren who bear the memory of the Jewish victims and the grandchildren of Lithuanians, Poles, Germans and other Europeans who collaborated. History provides a chance to show courage and becomes a test of commitment to remember the victims and prevent history from repeating itself. Beyond the millions killed and maimed for whom Holocaust Remembrance Day is dedicated, unique stories of humanity emerge, as mundane as each of us. Today, this narrative continues to be followed by the people of Ukraine, and their story becomes our story. Inevitably, the question of who we will be for future generations is raised again. Will we not become passive observers similar to those who enabled the 20th century? crimes?

Not only the past, but also the present of our great neighbor teaches us that we must not blindly worship but build a meaningful relationship with historical memory. The stories of the Holocaust and its memory testify that it becomes especially difficult to recognize those moments in history where our own role does not inspire pride. Out of shame and unwillingness to take responsibility for it comes arrogance – imagining that we can simply deny history or ignore it. However, history is not forgotten and has not been saved. Each and every one of us finds ourselves at the crossroads between the past and the future. Unreflected, such history, as we can see from today’s Russia, returns in the form of superstition, anger, revenge and lies.

Today, with a better understanding than the West of the dangers posed by the Kremlin regime, we must not expect from others more than we demand from ourselves – recognition of the truth, its unambiguous moral evaluation and political decision-making. It is not uncommon in our societies, as well as in the societies of our neighbors, such as the Poles, to mistakenly believe that Jews require repentance. And in this case, what can those who did not kill anyone and did not betray anyone do? Indeed, it is a much more modest demand – to admit the truth, just as today we demand to admit the truth that the evil that Russia sows has no justification.

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The article is in Lithuanian

Tags: memory possibility future

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