‘let’s just commemorate’

by tobybee

Last Sunday night I participated in a discussion at the Bund about how they commemorate the Holocaust. This commemoration takes place on April 19th every year, at a ceremony that is called the Geto akademye: April 19th is the date on the secular calendar when the Nazis entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final Aktion, or deportation of prisoners. As is well known, they were met with armed resistance from some of the Jews. And so this is the date that the Bund worldwide has taken as its day of commemoration.

A problem arose in the aftermath of the commemoration this year. Regular readers of this blog might remember that we posted Dave Slucki’s speech which he gave at the akademye this year (if you didn’t read it then, go read it now!). And I said then, and I still maintain, that this was one of the most perfect speeches I can think of for a Holocaust commemoration at this particular historical moment. Unsurprisingly however, it caused a few ripples, as others in the Bund community later said that they were offended by what he had said.

So, in response, the Bund convened the meeting which took place on Sunday evening. About 35 people gathered together in the Bund’s halls, to listen to speakers and voice their opinions about what April 19th should entail. And, I have to say, it was one of the most interesting discussions about Holocaust commemoration that I have heard for some time. Interesting, however, not in the best sense of the term, unfortunately…

I was asked to speak as someone who is outside the Bund community but who has spoken at a previous April 19th ceremony, and as someone whose academic work is concerned with considerations of Holocaust memory. What was most fascinating for me, I think, was the way in which the discussion turned oh-so-very quickly into an emotional plea. Which isn’t to devalue emotions, but to try to point at the way in which, in this particular space, emotions were held up as something purer than what was perceived as academic thought (which reared its head when I suggested that any historian of memory would say that to remember is inherently political).

So one speaker argued that the Bund should ‘stay true to remembering’, calling for a space in which people could ‘just commemorate’. The ceremony was equated to the experience of ‘standing at [a family members’] grave’. There was a discourse of purity of commemoration at work, such that someone else in the audience was driven to ask ‘when you all say remember, and commemorate, what do you actually mean?’ And the answer? One person said that on all other days they remember, of course, but on this day, what makes it different, is that it is a holy day; that it is about standing at the cemetery and reciting a set of poems, and songs, lighting candles. That this day, this commemoration, is about a set of rituals which are known, and which bring comfort; that it’s not a day to make (what was perceived as) extraneous meaning out of the Holocaust. The perception that April 19th is in some way holy permeated the room. Speaker after speaker said that that ceremony is their Yom Kippur, their Rosh Hashana. Indeed, Dave was accused of having ‘shattered the holiness of the ceremony’.

So what was it that was so shattering?

I think, from my reading, that it was that he raised a different set of questions about the Holocaust. In his speech he raised the question of what it means to honour the memories of those who died and those who survived. And I think, in essence, that is the central question that all makers of Holocaust memories and commemorations are trying to answer. But the answers he posed were, truly, shattering. I think there is a kernel of truth in that. For instance. In the speech he called the Israeli occupation of the West Bank illegal. And this is, I would think, a truth. In international law, yes, the Occupation is illegal. That he said so on that night, and in that space, was for some disrespectful. This was a word that people kept returning to: that the speech was disrespectful and didn’t respect the sanctity of the event. For Dave, however, I think, it was a question of ethics. April 19th this year fell on Yom Ha’atzmaut. While the akademye was taking place, across town a large group of the Melbourne Jewish community was celebrating the anniversary of Israel’s independence. To not mention that, in light of the type of questions Dave was raising about the Holocaust and what it can mean for us today, was in an important sense unethical.

But the hegemonic position of the Bund community seemed to be that the ceremony was not political: that to raise explicitly political questions was to be disruptive and to show dishonour. That to make people uncomfortable was to disrespect the event (and by event here I mean both the Holocaust and April 19th).

We know of course that this is not true: that everything is political: that the mere choice to remember, to include particular stories and exclude others, to use particular structures and motifs of commemoration, is political. That to be rebellious, to consider different ways of thinking and speaking, is an important way in which the Holocaust can be commemorated (after all, it’s a commemoration which falls on the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: how better to honour the memories of those who rose up than to echo their rising?). And this was a point which was definitely made by a few people present at the meeting on Sunday night. So I don’t mean to suggest that it was Dave against the Bund – certainly not. But what I took from the meeting was that for all the work which theorists of memory and commemoration generally, and of the Holocaust in particular (and in general), have done, there is still a sense which pervades the Melbourne Jewish community, that the Holocaust is sacred, that remembering it needs to be done in a ‘pure’ fashion, and that such purity can exist. Indeed, as one person commented, ‘it’s not academic. It’s emotional. It’s historical. It’s simple.’

If I was reminded of anything on Sunday night, it was that when it comes to Jewish communities remembering the Holocaust, it’s never simple.