The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Subject: Holocaust Almanac - One, by One, by One...(Conclusions)
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Archive/File: holocaust/miller conclusion
Last-Modified: 1994/02/04

"So at times while writing this book, I found myself losing patience
with the debate over whether the Holocaust was, or was not, a uniquely
Jewish experience. Of course the Holocaust was unique and, yes, it
happened to the Jews. The Jews were singled out for total eradication,
and for senseless, even counterproductive slaughter, since the
genocide required resources that the Germans diverted from their war
effort. But the Holocaust was a tragedy for Western civilization as
well.

Could anyone not believe that it called into question the
underpinnings of 'civilized' society? Could anyone doubt that it
undermined for a long time to come the spiritual authority of the
Catholic Church and other churches that put their institutional
interests above the tenents of their faith? Was it possible to have
older European friends and not know that the war had destroyed their
families and their world?

No, most of the 'others,' as they are often callously called, did not
die in gas chambers. Their suffering is not comparable to that of the
Jews as a people. Except for Gypsies, no other group was singled out
for total extermination by the Nazis. But that does not mean that the
memory of their tragedy matters less or is any less compelling. The
war that produced the Holocaust was a universal tragedy not only
because six million Jews were deliberately killed. It was a universal
catastrophe because the allegedly civilized world let it happen.

Western Europe today seems prosperous, self-assured, and tranquil
enough. But beneath the crust, the lava of memory smolders. Only when
a society is forced to confront these memories -- by a Jenninger
speech in Germany, a Waldheim election in Austria, or a Barbie trial
in France -- does the bitterness, the hatred, and the anti-Semitism,
along with the guilt and the defensiveness, burst forth with what
seems astonishing power and vehemence.

In every country, every culture I explored, irrespective of national
character or political ideology, a particularly national form of
self-deception has usually triumphed over self-revelation. The need to
evade has nost often transcended illumination.

It does not help to quote Santayana -- that those who refuse to learn
from history are bound to repeat it. For history, as Geoffrey Hartman
astutely observed, sends decidedly mixed messages. Was it inevitable
that Jews in Germany, the most successful and among the most
assimilated in Europe, would be singled out as vermin fit only for
extermination?

The so-called 'lessons' of the war and the Holocaust are now being
written and rewritten. But the Holocaust does not 'teach.' It is not a
religion or an ideology. It cannot provide a moral or political
framework for living one's life. The Holocaust exhausts. It defies. It
negates. And it raises frightening questions, such as what did the
Jews of Europe do to incur such wrath? How could Europe's most
cultured people have devised the West's most efficient, neatly
implemented genocide? Why did so many people follow Hitler? Why did
relatively few resist?

While the vehicles of remembrance differ from society to society, the
mechanisms of suppression tend to be similar. Cultures suppress what
they would like to forget in remarkably similar ways, even when the
events themselves are strikingly different. Events such as Stalin's
brutal collectivization and purges in the USSR, the Dreyfus affaid and
Klaus Barbie's crimes and collaboration in France, Kurt Waldheim's war
service in Austria, Wounded Knee or My Lai for Americans, or the
Holocaust almost everywhere, are not comparable. But that does not
imply that they cannot and will not be compared. One thing they have
in common is the desire of the people and societies responsible for
for them to forget them or evade responsibility for them. They become
alike in the way in which we come to think of them, or to suppress
them.

Cultures tend to employ the same vehicles to suppress pain and
unpleasant memories as individuals: denial, the shifting of blame,
rationalization, and relativization.

In almost every country, denial, the least sophisticated form of
suppression, is the easiest to combat. The unabashed revisionists who
deny that the Holocaust took place have no intellectual credibility in
Europe or the United States; their audience has been extremely limited
and is likely to remain so. Even the Soviet Union does not deny that
their was a Final Solution for Jews; it has simply chosen not to
emphasize their disproportionate slaughter and suffering. 

...

Abstraction is memory's most ardent enemy.  It kills because it
encourages distance and often indifference.  We must remind ourselves
that the Holocaust was not six million.  It was one, plus one, plus
one...  Only in understanding that civilised people must defend the
one, by one, by one...can the Holocaust, the incomprehensible, be
given meaning." (Miller, 278-287)

                             Work Cited

Miller, Judith. One, By One, By One: Facing the Holocaust. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1990. ISBN 0671644726


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