“Redemption”: Yad Vashem and Jewish Identity (day five)
By Hannah Duncan, Brown ’15
After visiting Yad Vashem yesterday, I feel completely inadequate to write anything about the Holocaust. Professor Yehoshua Bauer opened his discussion by asserting that “empty cliches are pure nonsense.” There is nothing I can write or say that can describe the sorrow and significance of walking through Yad Vashem and reliving the genocide. There is nothing I can do to redeem the dead.
Since arriving in Israel five days ago, I have heard the word “redemption” used almost daily in a variety of contexts, from Shalmi Barmore’s description of Zionism as an act of redeeming the land, to our Yad Vashem tour guide’s explanation of German brutality as an act of redeeming the poverty of the Weimar Republic. In every case, “redemption” has been used as a method of recovery. But what does recovery even mean in light of the Holocaust?
As I walked across the Warsaw brick in Yad Vashem, the guide referred to Jean Paul’s explanation that “memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be driven”. It occurred to me, after leaving Yad Vashem and listening to Professor Bauer, that I was looking for solace in the wrong place.
Collective memory and mindful recognition, rather than redemption, paves the only road for recovery from the Holocaust. Collective memory, in many ways, serves as the ultimate act of self-determination. Only through memory, and critical examination of the past, do we as a people have the freedom to recognize reality and, from that context, shape our own vision for the future.
As Professor Bauer explained, we should critically engage with the history of the Holocaust so that we can appropriately integrate the Holocaust into our Jewish identity. We should not use the Holocaust as a tool to define our Judaism or redeem our Zionism.
I left Yad Vashem with more questions about the historical background which the museum did not have than space to address, rather than cliched and comforting answers. I could not respect the victims of the Holocaust, and the tradition they left me, without questioning the world they came from and the reasons they suffered. Memory, as Professor Bauer explained, is the ultimate act of honoring the dead.
My questions did not dissipate when I walked through the crowded shuk later that day: memory is an active process. Recognition and remembrance forced me to confront reality and inspired me to examine my own place in the context of history. In the shuk, buying Challah for Shabbat, I felt deeply part of the Jewish community and hopeful for the undying vibrancy of my Jewish culture. But, what does it mean that 6 million Jews were murdered, yet I am free to walk through the lively, and Hebrew-speaking alleys of the market place. What kind of responsibilities must I uphold as a Jew in Jewish state?
In recognizing the full context for the Jewish narrative, both the victories and the tragedy, I feel empowered to participate in the ongoing story. I refuse to participate in the Jewish story because I want to win back the dead.
As tempting as this emotional response may be, and as ingrained as it is in the contemporary politics of the regions, redemption is impossible and dangerous. I want to question the past and I want to recognize my history. I want to participate in the Jewish story because I want to remember the community that shaped my values and my world, and through this collective memory carry on the tradition I love.
As J Street U moves from speaker to speaker, from town to town, and from story to story, I have questioned the truth of what I see and I am prepared to take responsibility for the shared memory of my community.