Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

"Whose Memory Lives When the Last Survivor Dies?"

by Gustav Niebuhr

[THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 29, 1995]
"The past is not dead," William Faulkner once said. "It's not even past." He might have added that public memories of the past are also the battlefields of the present.

Last week, controversies erupted over how to remember two singular events in the history of this troubled century - the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in January 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, built by the Germans near the Polish village of Oswiciem, was the largest of the Nazi death camps, where Jews made up the overwhelming number of victims. But the Jewish groups that were invited to the Polish government's official commemoration on Thursday complained that the ceremonies had been poorly planned and had a strongly "nationalist" flavor that obscured the magnitude of the Jewish losses.

In the case of the atomic bomb, the debate was equally sharp, with American veterans vehemently objecting to a planned exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum about the Enola-Gay, the B-29 airplane that dropped the bomb. The exhibit, they said, showed bias against the American war effort by portraying it as the beginning of a bleak period of nuclear proliferation, by painting the United States as the aggressor and the Japanese as hapless victims and by underestimating the number of casualties the United States would have suffered had it opted to invade Japan instead. By the end of the week, more than 80 Republican and Democratic members of Congress had called for the removal of the museum's director, Martin 0. Harwit.

How should such stories be told? Are these historical events about national pride and perseverance, or about martyrdom? Both the Auschwitz death camp and the Enola Gay are physical relics that demand explanation, for it is in the telling of their stories that people and nations come to understand themselves.

"By themselves, monuments are of little value, mere stones in the landscape," James E. Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in "The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning." "But as part of a nation's rites or the object of a people's national pilgrimage, they are invested with national soul and memory."

In other words, a site like Auschwitz and an artifact like the Enola Gay are seen as having moral lessons to impart, and not just to this generation. But to know what the lessons are, there must be explanations. With the stakes so high, there is bound to be controversy.

"The commemorative membrane is so sensitive to any perceived act of desecration, it immediately becomes an event," said Edward Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. By way of example, he cited a case from a century ago when veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg became enraged when the battlefield's caretakers blocked their plans to place a memorial at a specific site. The Pennsylvania veterans charged that the memory of their sacrifice was being "defiled."

One does not need to reach so far back in this country's history to find deep divisions over how to recall national events. These days, even the recent past is being contested; dates and names have become public Rorschach tests.

Only days after last November's midterm elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich inveighed against "counterculture McGovern-niks" conjuring up the most negative views of the late 1960's and early 1970's, portraying those years as a time of social upheaval, irresponsibility and rebellion. Others, needless to say, remember it differently.

"Public memory is contested memory," says Michael Berenbaum, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. "How the decade of the 80's is remembered is contested memory; how the decade of the 60's is remembered is contested memory. Part of our political struggle in the United States is how those two decades are remembered."

Is it important to agree? That depends on whether one believes that the contest is about the facts themselves and not merely about the lessons to be drawn from them.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the issue comes down a question of facts: Who were the death camp's principal victims?

Historians now place the number of those killed by the Nazis between 1.1 million and 1.5 million, of whom about 90 percent were Jews. But, according to Dr. Berenbaum, immediately after the war, Poland's Communist rulers were inclined to believe a Russian estimate that 4 million people had died at Auschwitz, half of them Poles. Although that figure has since been debunked by Polish historians, public consciousness has not caught up; many Poles still view Auschwitz as a place of national martyrdom, he said.

"What you have in Poland is a cultural lag," he said, adding, "I'm optimistic it will change because I see the enormous changes that have taken place in Poland in last 15 years and most especially in the last five years."

Still, it may seem poignant, even tragic, that disagreements over how to commemorate such momentous events should take place on their 50th anniversaries. One would think that after half a century the world would have resolved basic questions of fact.

But perhaps it is precisely because 50 years have passed that the controversies have become so pitched. "Fiftieths, I think, intensify arguments over any form of remembrance," Dr. Linenthal said. "Fiftieths are the last time when you have massive groups of veterans or survivors who are able to put their imprint on the event."

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