Tom Sutcliffe: Will time ease the pain of the Holocaust?

[Tom Sutcliffe writes for the Independent.]

When, I wonder, will the Holocaust no longer hurt? Today, Holocaust Memorial Day, might not be thought to be the most tactful date on which to put this question – which assumes, in its phrasing, that such a state of affairs will eventually come about. Today, after all, is dedicated to postponing such a state of affairs, a day which exists because of the belief that remembering (and hurting) shouldn't have an expiry date.

So I should perhaps explain more carefully what I mean. It isn't that we're anywhere close to forgetting the Holocaust, or thinking it negligible. Only that it seems inevitable that our emotional connection will eventually undergo an evolution. And by "we" I don't mean you and me, but those generations that follow us.

An example might help. Imagine that Steven Spielberg has been moved to make a film about the Biblical Exodus. It would, I suggest, be virtually impossible for it to generate the same directly felt sorrow that Schindler's List evoked in its viewers.

Alternatively, imagine the distinction between a documentary about Waterloo and a film about the Somme. One, however detailed its account of individual suffering, is likely to strike us as temporally insulated from us, while the other can still pierce us with a surprising intimacy. And these differences are not to do with the magnitude of the suffering involved – but the sense that the more proximate events are directly part of our history (possibly family history) rather than history in general.

Some would argue that the Holocaust has no half-life: that it is exempt from this universal law of historical fading. Elie Weisel once wrote: "The Holocaust is unique, not just another event ... [it] transcends history." This seems a hazardous contention – because if the Holocaust is "unique", it would be easy to argue that it is, by definition, unrepeatable – and that remembering should be a religious duty for Jews rather than a secular duty for everyone.

But if he's wrong, as I think he is, another significant question arises. What kind of memory will the Holocaust become when all of us, and all our children too, are dead? Will it slowly metamorphose into an exclusively Jewish event – a marker of identity and origin, in much the way that the Exodus is now ritualised (without a sharply present sense of pain). Or will it crystallise into one of those odd and dangerously volatile hybrids of historical specificity and undiminished grievance – such as the Field of Blackbirds is for nationalistic Serbs or the death of Ali is for devout Shia Muslims? I hope it isn't the latter.

Peter Novick, whose book The Holocaust and Collective Memory is wonderfully thoughtful about this subject, includes a wise remark by Leon Wieseltier about the dangers of artificially sustaining a sense of pain and victimhood. "In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound."

It's a reminder that hurt – so easy to treat as the only reliable marker of sincere feeling – may be at odds with healing. One hopes that even in a thousand years people will still remember and think about the Holocaust. But we shouldn't expect or want them to weep too...

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