Recently on the pages of The Canadian Jewish News, a question has been debated regarding the meaning of the statement ubiquitous in Jewish circles: “never again.”
Some say it has lost its charge, that these words, born out of the greatest human disaster, no longer rally us to the cries of the disadvantaged and troubled in our cities, countries or globally. Others maintain that “never again” was never intended as the slogan driving Jewish social justice, as the bumper sticker for a people who are supposedly a light unto the nations. No, it is a “force field of language,” a Jewish watchdog, a constant reminder to be vigilant to impending threats to the Jewish People.
Rather than having evaporated, perhaps the substance of “never again” was never there. Do we mean “never again” just for the Jewish People or for humanity? In fact, it is not clear, and is further muddied by our collective trauma.
Until reading this unfolding conversation in The CJN, I sincerely (and apparently naively) believed that, generally speaking, all Jews abided by the notion that it is our shared responsibility in the wake of the Shoah to look out for the plight of people around the world. Elie Wiesel himself asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe… And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.”
If one abides by Wiesel’s position, then the mantra of “never again” is not working, neither galvanizing nor substantively connecting us. In fact, this phrase is bandied about with such casual, ever-present usage that it dishonours the very victims and survivors of the Holocaust that it was intended to recognize. Furthermore, it is being misappropriated through misguided gestures.
Last fall, a documentary film about survivors of Auschwitz got an unusual amount of media coverage – not about the survivors themselves, but about some of their descendants who have taken to marking themselves with commemorative tattoos replicating their parents’ or grandparents’ Auschwitz prisoner numbers. And why? The answer repeatedly provided (as though a forgone conclusion): “Because we were taught never to forget.”
Here we find the volatility of a communal narrative that has emphasized remembering above all else – so that we can scarcely recall what we are remembering, so that we make indelible marks on our own bodies, mimicking the gross actions of the Nazis, all out of the grave fear of forgetting. “Remember not to forget” (together with its close companion, “never again”) is a limited, circular message that leads back only onto the act of memory itself. What trickles down is often an echo of horror and fear, lacking substance and purpose.
I want to remember my grandmother’s smile; I want to remember my grandfather’s love of Jewish song; I want to remember the cities in Poland in which they were born and where they were married; I want to remember the Yiddish language that they taught me. I want their love and their life to be my legacy.
My grandparents did not survive the horrors of the Holocaust and the murder of their families and communities to be recalled until the end of memory as “Holocaust survivors.” They were people – good, hard working, resilient, with a desire to make a world a better place, to bring happiness to their children and grandchildren, with a love of Jewish tradition and community. I will not make “Holocaust survivor” their moniker, nor “never again” my vacant battle cry.
The directive of “never again”/“remember not to forget” has left my generation aimless. What do we do with this exhortation? Where do we go with this teaching? The emphasis on remembering and on pain has led some to a state of constant caution and many others instead to alienation and misinformation. And this turning away may be the greatest disservice we can do to those who survived and to those who didn’t.
Yes, remembering is essential, but it is not an end in itself. We can be more than vessels of memory. We can do more than stomp around, pumping our fists in the air, shouting “never again” from our comfortable existence in Canada. I believe that my generation can do more than hold the story of the Holocaust for future generations. We can be agents for change and for healing, for connection and for creativity. We can be active, engaged members of the Jewish community and citizens of the world.
So, how do we facilitate this shift? There are many ways to take this memory and move it forward. For me, it is through arts and culture. For others, it may be through activism, education, informed philanthropy, and even the seemingly simple acts of listening attentively, building relationships or cultivating constructive conflict. Thankfully, I am not alone in prodding and attempting to transform some of the diluted messages dispensed throughout a lifetime immersed in Jewish schools and institutions. I have found like-minded people who inspire me in their rigorous insistence on confronting misconceptions, infusing daily discourse with complexity and writing a new, more nuanced narrative about modern Jewish experience.
Then let us shift the expression into a call to action: remember and connect, remember and know, remember and grow, remember and change.
Originally from Montreal, Evelyn Tauben is an independent curator, producer and writer based in Toronto with a focus on contemporary Jewish arts and culture.