Remembrance of the Shoah means responsibility towards the victims and a commitment to the values of our society. It must be our moral compass…


Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) on German streets commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution (JVG)

Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) on German streets commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution

The number of approximately 450,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide is about to decrease by 50 per cent over the next few years, and hence those who bore witness to it. By now, the fourth generation after the Shoah is growing up. It is likely to be the first generation to become acquainted with the destruction of the European Jews only through history books. How will this generation commemorate the genocide? Will there even be a remembrance of it? Will it be purely consigned to history or will the Shoah play a crucial role in future society? A comparison between Israel and Germany can be used to illustrate different approaches to this issue.
Until now, the memorial work has mainly been carried out by the first and second generations. Personal memory and historical reappraisal went hand in hand. They found their way into society and often provided a stimulus for public discussions and debates. Thus, confrontation with the Shoah has shaped society in Israel and Germany. While foundations were laid for social change in Germany with the so-called “Wiedergutmachung” and the way in which the generation of 1968 tried to come to terms with their parents’ past, for Israel and the Jewish world this was symbolized by founding the Jewish state of Israel, the erection of Yad Vashem and the Eichmann trial.
Today, it is the irreconcilable, the divisive, which has brought the German and Israeli societies together. In the face of so many weaknesses and the fragility of the German-Israeli and German-Jewish relationship, this development was both inconceivable and unforeseeable. A joint remembrance of the Shoah, as distinct as experiences were, was the guiding principle behind this process. Both societies perceive the Shoah as an integral part of their identity. For future generations who have no immediate connection with the Shoah and can only rely on historical records, remembrance of the genocide represents a formidable challenge.
The Shoah plays a crucial role in Israeli society and within the Jewish world. In Israel, the Holocaust has not become historical past, but instead forms part of present-day life. Hundreds of thousands of survivors found a new home in the Jewish homeland before, during and after the Shoah. Almost all Jewish families mourn the death of a loved one, almost all have a grandparent who is a Holocaust survivor.

A Jewish memorial day
On Yom Ha-Shoah, live in Israel comes to a complete standstill Adam Jones \ 5681251098_6a17b081c0_o \Flickr \ (CC BY-SA 2.0) \ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

On Yom Ha-Shoah, live in Israel comes to a complete standstill
Adam Jones \ 5681251098_6a17b081c0_o \Flickr \ (CC BY-SA 2.0) \ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Yom Ha-Shoah, which mainly takes place within Israel, commemorates the six million Jews who fell victim to the Nazi regime. Unlike International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Yom Ha-Shoah is primarily a Jewish memorial day. At 10 a.m., sirens sound in every part of the country. For several minutes, life comes to a complete standstill, people remain exactly where they are, in remembrance – the Jewish world is still in a state of shock to some extent; grief is omnipresent, heavy and you can almost touch it.
Besides the collective remembrance of the Shoah, which shapes Jewish culture and history, there are also individual memories. The concurrence of both aspects may be illustrated by a memorable event from the life of the former Director of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who passed away two years ago. Only one picture hung in Dagan’s office. It was that of his grandfather cloaked in a tallit, kneeling before the Nazis, shortly before his execution.
And on the German side? What is the perception of the Holocaust in Germany? In contrast to Israel, the Holocaust in Germany seems to be decreasing in importance for present-day life; it is drifting more and more into the historical narrative in spite of all the commemoration ceremonies, all the “Stolpersteine” (stumbling blocks), all the memorials – or for that very reason? Is it due to the fact that commemoration is a priori retrospective, or that only positive events in history are suitable for fostering a sense of identity within society?
It is clear that societies always enshrine events of momentous historical importance in their collective memory, which they consider relevant for their continued existence and sense of belonging. Both positive and negative experiences can be understood as epochal and defining; they represent the strife for an ideal state of society, as well as its opposite, that is, the state which society does not want.
Our societies see the Shoah as the epitome and archetype of evil and inhumanity. Socially speaking, there is nothing more evil than the Holocaust. Hence, the Holocaust represents the absolute reference point for inhumanity and contempt for mankind in almost all Western societies. The Shoah emanated from a highly industrialized country, a cultured country, a country with a highly educated population in the center of Europe. However, all this offered no protection against the greatest crime against humanity in history. “There is no certainty after Auschwitz”, is how German Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble described this fact in his speech to the parliament when commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz.
As such, the Shoah is and will forever be a vital reference point in Germany. It will continue to play an important role in shaping our society in the future, since the foundations of this country are connected to the rupture of civilization represented by the Shoah in so many ways; such that it is impossible to forget. No German federal ministry, no large German corporation and no German university can authentically review its history without reflecting upon their role during the years between 1933 and 45.
Many other important foundations in today’s Germany also have a direct or indirect connection to the Shoah. There are provisions throughout the German Basic Law which are designed to prevent another dictatorship and, hence, a genocide. The Federal Armed Forces introduced the principle of the citizen in uniform, bearing in mind the role of the Wehrmacht during the Third Reich. Now, a German soldier is expressly obliged to adhere to human rights and in the event of non-compliance, cannot appeal to superior orders. A number of high-ranking politicians, according to their own account, such as Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, attribute the personal motivation for their political actions to Auschwitz.

A moral compass

We need to realize even more clearly which fundamental reference point the Holocaust represents for our democracy and for our moral compass. Only thus can future generations understand the genesis of our value-based community and our democratic principles. Those who detract from and discredit the remembrance of the Holocaust, attack the most important moral convention in this country. If the destruction of European Jewry is not embedded as a reference point in the collective memory of future generations, the foundations of our own society will crumble and it will lose its parameters. Remembrance of the Shoah means responsibility towards the victims and a commitment to the values of our society. Or to use the words of American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past, are doomed to repeat it.” ■

Rüdiger Mahlo is the representative of the Jewish Claims
Conference in Germany

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