Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Holocaust remembrance – some thoughts

This year a week of Holocaust Remembrance started with a talk by Prof. Robert Gordon from Cambridge University on the subject of 'Luck and the Holocaust'. He considered 'how the Holocaust and its cultural legacies reshaped the way [people] think about some of the most fundamental questions of human experience.' He focused in particular on the nature of luck and chance operate in our world. The lecture displayed brilliant erudition. It brought together ideas from Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Perec, Holocaust survivor testimonies, but I wonder whether this academic perambulation had any use in understanding the Holocaust, particularly in the future, when the experience of Holocaust survivors will only be a distant memory. Talking of 'luck' in the Holocaust context is obscene. True, as a narrative device, almost all survivor testimonies describes surviving a matter of luck, but this is a means of stressing not the survivor's luck, but the tragedy of those who did not survivor, the absences, the losses. The memoirs are useful tools on shedding light on the terrible personal experiences. As historical accounts they are of limited use. Memory, particularly traumatic memory cannot be trusted. To understand the Holocaust in historical terms we need to look at the political forces that made it possible, and indeed, acceptable, in cultural terms we need to look at the whole questions of assimilation and particularism, at nationalism, irredentism and cosmopolitanism, modernism, and the age long deeply ingrained anti-Semitism. Luck doesn't enter into any of these. I get the impression that such academic games devalue the historical truth. This does not deny that the lecture was entertaining, challenging, thought provoking, but luck had nothing to do with the Holocaust.