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April 20, 2021 12:12 pm

Holocaust Memorials Are Monuments Against Civilization’s Enemies

avatar by Harold Brackman


The newly-opened symbolic synagogue at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial. Photo: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center

The American Jewish community is a leader in Holocaust commemoration. Why? To teach the lesson — “Never Again” — of course.

Yet skeptics still scoff: why commemorate a crime — the Holocaust — that, however monstrous and monumental, did not even occur on American soil?

What they fail to understand is this: The Holocaust was, first and foremost, a crime against Jews, but it was no less a crime against humanity. The Final Solution was an attempt to wipe out a member of the human family. This is why everyone should mourn the victims as their own kindred. It is also why the Holocaust has become the symbol of absolute evil.

Susan Neiman’s book, “Learning from the Germans” (2019), focuses on how Germans who grew up during and after the youth rebellion of 1968 have tried to come to terms with the Holocaust. She then contrasts this with how Americans after the Civil War grappled with the meaning of a  conflict during which over 600,000 American soldiers died.

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Neiman compliments young Germans for their courage in trying to make amends for unspeakable crimes by affirming “a new Germany” in which there are no statues to “Nazi heroes.” She contrast this with the US, where defeated white Southerners exceeded the victorious North in erecting statues. They memorialized Confederate soldiers in two great waves of monument building. The first came after 1900, when the segregated South demanded to be accepted without apology as part of a reunified nation. The second came in the 1960s when white Southerners erected Confederate statues as symbols of their rejection of racial integration.

Now, Americans who believe in civil rights, black and white, want to remove Confederate statues, not to dishonor Southern soldiers who died during the Civil War, but because they refuse any longer to accept the white South’s racist mythologizing of its past.

It is important to remember that attacks on Holocaust memorialization are not really about history. Holocaust monuments and museums, as Neiman argues, are “values made visible.”

Holocaust deniers and desecrators are not the only ones who want to destroy these universal values of justice and equality. So too do the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 carrying swastiska-emblazoned banners and shouting “Blood and Soil. Jews will not replace us”  — and also the violent occupiers of the US Capitol in January 2021, who wore antisemitic insignias while unfurling Confederate flags.

Over a century ago, philosopher William James gave a speech dedicating a monument to Black soldiers and the white officers who died fighting for freedom in 1864. But he also delivered a warning to future generations about where the greatest threats to civilization might come from: “The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes …  [From] internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blessed above all is [the nation where] the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day … by speaking, writing, voting reasonably … by good temper between parties.”

The “internal enemies” James was warning against were bigots wearing the masks of false patriotism — a sight that is becoming all too common today in America and across the world.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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