Learning from the Holocaust
The following remarks have been slightly modified from the original address given at the closing session of the interdisciplinary conference Global Connections: Critical Holocaust Education in a Time of Transition, which took place at the University of Victoria Sept. 1-3. Participants “had the opportunity to discuss how decades of research on the Holocaust can be used to help understand and educate about other human rights issues and, in turn, how local histories can shed light on the way the Holocaust is represented and taught.”
I would like to thank the organizers for imagining and then managing a complex, well-structured, well-organized and thought-provoking conference that allowed us to think and talk about one of the most disturbing dimensions of human and political history.
In the last three days, the scholars and community members who gathered for our Global Connections conference have traveled great distances in time and space. We have moved from the meeting rooms of Versailles to the war rooms of Berlin, from Jewish homes to death camps throughout Europe, all the way to 1990s Rwanda, and then to present-day Turtle Island and the borders of Hungary and Macedonia.
We have learned about the pedagogical challenges facing Holocaust educators in North America and Europe. We have heard heartbreaking stories from survivors, from the children of survivors, from the grandchildren of survivors, from the children and loved ones of heroes, and from people deeply affected by the dehumanization of colonialism.
We have talked and we have listened. We have heard poetry and music and watched films. And now it falls to me to do that impossible thing – to offer some final words. It is impossible, of course, not just because I am surrounded by scholars who have spent their whole careers studying genocide, but also because I am surrounded by individuals and also by family members and by communities scarred and burned and torn apart by suffering that precludes closure.
In the face of such suffering, sometimes the right thing to say is nothing – sometimes that is the most fitting way to honor the missing parents, the lost siblings, the worlds that were not created because of these violent ruptures. But, in Europe, Rwanda, North America, Armenia, Cambodia, or the many other places torn asunder by inhumanity, silence colludes with geography and distraction, and prevents us from seeing, feeling and knowing things we must see, must feel, must know.
So, speaking is inadequate, but necessary. And so, like a good yeshiva student, I will respond to what I have been taught by posing questions. I would like, in particular, to leave you this afternoon with four questions or issues to consider. There are others one might pose, of course, but these four seem to capture many of the general themes we explored in the last three days.
First, what does it mean to talk about the Holocaust or any other genocide here, in Victoria, on what I only half-jokingly call Fantasy Island? One of the conference speakers reflected upon her students at Smith College, whose approach to the Holocaust often surprises and disappoints her. Many of us here on Vancouver Island who teach about the Holocaust experience similar things. After all, many of our students feel they have won a kind of political lottery by being born, or at least now living, in one of the most peaceful societies on earth. How might we reach such students, make them uncomfortable with their privilege, make them aware of the blood on the ground, the dark clouds hovering over the world for centuries – and still?
Second, the past has been made present in this room – but so, too, has the present seemed to haunt our discussions of the past. Every day, almost every hour, someone drew attention to the current refugee crisis that is stirring up so many anxieties not just in Europe but, as Wassilis Kassis (professor of educational sciences, University of Osnabrück, Germany) insisted, in the world. Of course, there are so many differences between the Europe of the Shoah and the Europe of today’s refugee crisis, but perhaps it is at this moment that we will see some of what we have learned from the Holocaust. If we fail this test, then we will have more people beside us when, in the coming decades, we ask ourselves why we did so little.
Third, we have mostly avoided talking about the ways people come to take possession of great catastrophes even when the individuals are only remotely connected to them. What kind of social capital and political momentum are generated by such attachments? To put it another way: what should we make of people who feed upon the misery of others in this way? The flipside of this question, of course, is what we should make of – and how we should respond to – the will to forget, the drive, the public demand, just to move on, to turn the page. The answer is not obvious, but the question needs to be asked.
Fourth and finally, we have been looking at mutilated bodies and mangled politics and sadistic ideologies, but where can one finally locate the pathologies that led to this pain? Is the origin economic inequality? Religion? Ignorance? Capitalism? Colonialism? Patriarchy? Fascism? Stalinism? Xenophobia? Racism? Yes. No. Partly.
I have heard many tidy post facto explanations of why such and such an act of colossal cruelty happened in place X, or why it didn’t happen in place Y. They are all good and interesting explanations, and we need more of them. We need to continue to improve the ways we explain both singular convulsions of violence, as well as systematic campaigns of extermination. Nonetheless, no matter how well we build our explanations for why an event occurred in a particular place, with particular actors in a particular historical period, some mystery always remains. I must confess that I worry that these accounts give us a false sense of the predictability of human behavior and the preventability of future genocides.
Perhaps this underlines the value of simply sometimes standing at the edge of the abyss and confessing ignorance. This is not to suggest we ought to throw up our hands, but rather that we must sometimes invite deeper, more humble, more sustained investigations of the dark corners of the human heart.
I thank you all for taking part in these investigations, for helping us see better how the heart can break and how the heart, nonetheless, continues to beat. Thank you for joining us in these conversations.
Paul Bramadat is director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, Department of History and the Religious Studies Program, University of Victoria.