published July 3, 1996
University of Southern Mississippi
Imagine the following scenario: a nation is suffering from the consequences of a harsh military defeat aggravated by a severe economic depression. Within that nation, a minority historically persecuted throughout Europe has achieved a degree of assimilation that is virtually unprecedented anywhere else. But the harsh economic conditions within the country invite a young party struggling for political survival to revive an old collection of myths and stereotypes, all designed to scapegoat the financially successful minority for the majority’s problems. Every effort is made to undo the assimilation that has taken place, and to distinguish the minority from everyone else. A large war involving all of Europe is sought. In the course of the war, many members of the minority are brutally slaughtered in death camps. The aggressor nation is militarily defeated. After the war, the minority pulls together, and takes pride in distinguishing itself from the rest of the world, basing much on its new found identity on a shared experience of victimization.
So now, you tell me: who won World War II? And for that matter, tell me whether the slaves in the United States were ever really liberated? There are many other questions of this kink I could pose, and I think the answers are all inconclusive. The situation is much more intuitively comprehensible on the individual level. For any combination of stupid reasons, a little boy grows up hated by his peers. He learns to resent them. Eventually, he turns into a hateful adult who is now hated for very good reasons. The persecutors have succeeded in turning their victim into the very monstrosity that they had wrongly envisioned him as being.
This is how persecution engenders its vicious circle. It enslaves the minds of the enslaved, and long after their chains are broken, their slavery continues. The Holocaust could be called, I think, the central event in “the Jewish experience.” To this day, tremendous effort goes into remembering what happened. Consider the Academy Award winning documentary featuring “Anne Frank Remembered” and the winner for documentary short subject “One Survivor Remembered.” All the memories, I am sure, create their sick kind of nostalgia, but is it not time to get beyond the 1940s? What about forgetting?
Intelligent feminists will regularly counsel the victims of sexual crimes not to allow their victimization to become their reason for living. The ultimate victory over a crime like rape is to allow oneself to become more than the victim of a rape. If this does not happen, the rapist has won. The victim must be able to forget – not deny – just forget. There is, after all, a good kind of forgetting. Why does the analogy so seldom carry over into the realm of mass persecution?
Many will contend that we cannot allow ourselves to forget the Holocaust. They will smugly respond with Seorge Santayana’s old adage; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” From this logic, it follows that the great lesson of the Holocaust is that there must not be another Holocaust, and the way to prevent another one is to remember the original one. First of all, Bosnia has graphically illustrated the idiocy and practical inadequacy of such thinking. Very conveniently, we don’t refer to the situation there as a Holocaust. We say “ethnic cleansing.” This way, we can think of it as something entirely novel and unexpected, and so the lesson of Bosnia now becomes that there must never be another Bosnia. And it all keeps on rolling along….
While everyone is so busy remembering to remember, they tend to forget that remembering is the very problem that drives the engines of persecution and genocide. Memories of ancient ethnic and racial rivalries are rekindled to someone’s political advantage, and the targeted minority revels in its minority status, making the task of the persecutors infinitely easier. It’s kink of like fighting a guerrilla war while wearing bright red uniforms.
A few weeks ago, the parents of a good friend of mine yelled at him for having a love interest who was not jewish. “The Jewish race is dying out,” they argued, citing frequent instances of cultural ignorance and intermarriage. I take that as a statement of hope. If the Holocaust ever had a lesson, it has nothing to do with remembering, and everything to do with forgetting the silly ethnic, racial and religious boundaries that separate us from one another.
Yet even in an environment like USM’s many refuse to get involved with anyone outside their own accident-of-birth group. They are content to obey and allow their historically myopic elders to breed them like cattle, and long after D-day, the Germans are winning the war. maybe one of their architects of genocide knew that if those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, those who cannot forget the past are doubly condemned.