I DIDN’T LEARN about the Holocaust until I was ten years old, the year my fifth-grade class took a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. I think that was the case for most of my class, sheltered kids from a tiny Catholic school, where class size never went above 30, that had known each other since the first day of kindergarten. To my knowledge, not one of us was of Jewish descent. As I try to recall that trip, what comes to mind first are emotions: excitement that we got to leave school grounds for the day, curiosity about what kinds of things we could buy from the cafeteria and the gift shop, frustration that the docent was taking so long with the tour. I just wanted it to be the end of the day already, because I was going over to Kevin’s house later to play video games and I couldn’t wait. I was tired, and bored, and there were a hundred other things I was thinking about instead of the evidence of so much human cruelty displayed in front of our eyes. Judging from the number of times our chaperones had to tell our group to be quiet and to pay attention and the excitement when everyone got back on the bus, I think that was the case for most of my class, too.
Fifteen years later, I look back and ask myself why there wasn’t a single somber face on that entire bus, why my classmates were smiling and laughing instead of crying, why I was laughing and smiling instead of crying. It’s an exercise in futility, because I already know why. We were too busy thinking about playing video games at Kevin’s.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration-turned-death camp that is the first image that’s conjured when anyone talks about the Holocaust or Nazis or the Second World War. Survivors, their families, and foreign dignitaries gathered at the site of the camp, which has since become a memorial, and in countries around the world to commemorate the 1.3 million people that were casualties of Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the ones who were lucky enough to escape that fate. Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi presiding over the ceremony that took place in London, spoke for the survivors when he said that they “are calling out to us from the depths of their hearts [to] ‘please keep the memory alive’.” Of all the many emotions they must be feeling on this day, I can imagine that one has to be especially poignant: the fear that when the last of them — the youngest of whom has to be closer to 80 than 70 in terms of age – dies, the memory of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau will die with them. The fear that the Holocaust will go the way of so many other atrocities perpetrated in history: forgotten, irrelevant, a footnote in a textbook.
Memory is deceitful. Memory implies that the event in question is finished, that it can be firmly placed in the past and has no place in the present, that we as rememberers are removed from the event. But like someone who wakes up from a nightmare reliving a long-past trauma, we are not removed from it; we are living in the midst of it, breathing it in like oxygen. Because, while the physical event of the Holocaust itself over, its spirit lives on – at least, the hatred, cruelty, and disregard for humanity that led its perpetrators to commit it in the first place lives on. It’s there at the core of the Israel-Gaza conflict. It’s there in the West’s reaction, or lack of reaction, rather, to the ten-year-long genocide in Darfur and Boko Haram’s war of terror in Nigeria. It pulled the trigger at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris; it lobbed canisters of tear gas and fired rubber bullets in Ferguson, Missouri; it choked Eric Garner to death in New York City. It was there in the voice of the man who called me a faggot at a bar last Friday night because I asked him to leave my friend alone. It’s there, and we are callously indifferent to it, like my class was on that field trip fifteen years ago, like the US and Great Britain were during the Second World War, when they sent planes flying over Auschwitz-Birkenau and didn’t bomb a single railroad, didn’t destroy a single crematorium, like each and every one of us is when we are confronted with violence and suffering and turn a blind eye to it. We see it, we feel it, and we do nothing.
So, to the survivors who ask that we keep the memory alive: Rest assured that we will. And we will make more memories, and then more, until they fill the air and choke our lungs, until we drown in them. We will create a world full of survivors, survivors who will, in 70 years’ time, march onto podiums and beg the world to remember. And the world will; amidst all its distractions, its petty concerns, its video games and after-school plans, it will remember and it will see. We just can’t promise that it will learn.