The Sleep of Memory
Not long ago on a trip to Kiev I visited Babyn Yar, where 33,771 Jews were killed during two days of slaughter in September 1941. All told, around 100,000 people lost their lives in Babyn Yar, most of them Jews. During my visit, I witnessed a scene of stark contrast: teenagers were happily playing football in a ditch, literally running over the bones of the dead, some of whom were no older than these adolescents when they were killed.
What causes this forgetfulness?
During Soviet times, silence surrounded the tragedy of Babyn Yar. Jews were to blame, so it seemed, for becoming victims, and it would have been “improper” to single out their losses officially. For this reason, acknowledgement of the tragedy was vague – officials spoke only of “the deaths of Soviet people.” This half-truth, while not justifying the Holocaust, was a cynical and shameful means of covering it up. The occasional breach in the invisible wall of silence, such as the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s
Babyn Yar (which Dmitry Shostakovich set to music in his Thirteenth Symphony) felt like a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere poisoned by lies. I remember very clearly that Jews were not the only ones to sense this – thinking people of all nationalities throughout the Soviet Union were ashamed of officialdom’s “lies through silence.”
But times have changed. Now there is a monument in Babyn Yar, and yearly services are held to pray for the victims. Meetings are held at the site, and the president and other members of the Ukrainian government participate. So where does the forgetfulness come from?
It seems that all of the well-intentioned lessons simply go “in one ear and out the other.” Young people are forgetting what they have heard about Babyn Yar and the Holocaust just like they forget everything else “pounded into them” at school. Memory is an emotion – people do not remember everything they have heard or been taught (which would be impossible); they remember things that they consider interesting, important, or pleasurable, confirming the idea that culture is that which remains in the consciousness once the facts have been forgotten. Apparently memories of the Holocaust have failed to take root in the consciousness or become part of the culture of a large number of people. The Holocaust is certainly not the only example of historical forgetfulness or indifference to others’ suffering. We see the same indifference to the Armenian genocide of 1915. In truth, most of the world has only the faintest idea of what happened during World War II. Outside the Soviet Union and a few other countries that have first-hand memories of the war, huge numbers of young (and not so young) people are convinced that the war was found by the U.S. and Great Britain on the one side and Germany on the other. The decisive role of the Soviet Union and its massive losses do not even enter the picture. Unfortunately, this is the result not only of human forgetfulness, but of Cold War propaganda.
Jews are naturally hurt, offended, and sometimes even frightened by this mass culture indifference to the Holocaust. However, it should be clear that the Holocaust and people’s attitude to it is not merely a “Jewish issue,” but one that concerns all of humanity.
One of Francisco Goya’s most well known works is at etching entitled
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. This is true of the sleep of memory, as well. Playing football on the bones of the dead is not just tactless and immoral, but, like any immoral action, can turn out to be deadly, even for the young players.
The need to instill patience and tolerance for “others” in young people is one of the most worrisome problems of the beginning of this new century. If we are unable to instill tolerance in the masses – in every person on Earth – then we are doomed to face a wave of irresolvable conflicts as nationalities unavoidably come into ever closer contact. Xenophobia plays the same role today that geopolitical ambition played in the 20
th century. In the past century, Germany’s insane geopolitical ambitions – its fight to expand its breathing space – resulted in two World Wars. Today, the xenophobia expressed by both majority and minority nationalities and by representatives of all confessions and cultures could plunge any multi-national state into a war in which everyone is the enemy. And very soon there will not be any states left that are not multi-national.
Therefore, it is vital that we continue to use the Holocaust as the most frightening example in human history of what xenophobia leads to. We must continue reminding people and explaining to them that this is always the logical, unavoidable “final decision” of xenophobia.
The question remains – how? How can we do this in a way that will be most effective and emotional? The art world certainly plays an enormous role with such films as
Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and La Vita
The World Holocaust Forum participates and will continue to participate in this process. The Forum was founded during the commemoration of the 60
th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The presidents of Israel and Poland expressed their willingness to become patrons of the Forum, and the presidents of Russia and Ukraine are expected to participate, as well. The Forum will next meet in October 2006 to commemorate the 65
th anniversary of the slaughter in Babyn Yar.
However, it is not these large meetings with heads of state and ministers that are important. Such meetings are simply a way to demonstrate the political will of leaders of the international community to not let people forget. What is needed is ongoing, painstaking work in the schools. One of the ways this is happening is through the European Education Program for Teachers on the Holocaust and its lessons, organized by the World Holocaust Forum.
We have to look at the issue in the harsh light of reality – forgetfulness of another’s misfortune and indifference to another’s suffering are part of human nature. It is regrettable but true, and the idea of reshaping human nature is as hopeless as it is widespread. We must not set ourselves pointless tasks, but instead buckle down to the realistic and constructive toil of continually reminding people, with the Holocaust among our examples, of what horrors can be brought on them and those they love by the prevalent and almost instinctive phenomena of nationalism, xenophobia and the desire to prove the “superiority” of one’s race.