The United States Museum of Holocaust Kitsch

At Washington’s memorial to the genocide of Jews, history often takes a backseat to “collective memory.”

Visitors to the United States Holocaust Museum, which is about to celebrate its' 20th anniversary, pass beneath a cast taken from the original entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, inscribed with the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free), on April, 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 17: Visitors to the United States Holocaust Museum, which is about to celebrate its' 20th anniversary, pass beneath a cast taken from the original entrance to the Auschwitz death camp, inscribed with the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes One Free), on April, 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by )

The historian Tony Judt once recalled that during a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, he saw “bored schoolchildren on an obligatory outing [playing] hide-and-seek among the stones.” He argued, “When we ransack the past for political profit — selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons — we get bad morality and bad history.” To which one should add: We also get kitsch.

Even when done well, commemoration almost always skates precariously close to kitsch. One might wish that the Holocaust were an exception in this regard, and that it will always, in Leon Wieseltier’s phrase, “press upon the souls of all who learn of it.” But it is not, much as we might wish otherwise.

This is a distinct problem, not to be confused with the fact that since 1945 the Shoah has regularly been employed to serve political agendas, the most obvious, as Judt emphasized, being to justify more or less any policy of the State of Israel with regard to its neighbors or to its Arab minority. But even when the remembrance of the Shoah is innocent of such subtexts, it has still been smothered in kitsch as Milan Kundera once defined it: all answers being “given in advance and [precluding] any questions.” Again, it is understandable to hope that people will be moved by an act of collective remembrance. And it is often, though not always, right to insist that they have a moral duty to remember. Where such acts become kitsch is when people take the fact that they are moved as a reason to think better of themselves.

It is unfortunate that a prime example of the instauration of this kind of kitsch remembrance is the U.S. National Holocaust Museum itself — the largest and best-known memorial to the Shoah in the world other than the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum and Center in Israel. To be sure, much of what is in the museum is as heartbreakingly far from kitsch as it is possible to get — above all, what Wieseltier called “the objects, the stuff, the things of the persecutions and the murders,” when he rightly described the Holocaust Museum as “a kind of reliquary.”

But these exhibits and films, photographs, and documents are bracketed by two extraordinarily kitschy pieces of set dressing. As one first enters the museum and before one has seen a single image or artifact of either Nazi atrocity or Jewish martyrdom, one must first walk by the serried battle flags of the U.S. Army divisions that liberated some of the concentration camps (there are no British or Russian standards, even though a great many of the museum’s exhibits concern Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British, and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviets). And as one leaves the last room of the museum, the final exhibit one sees contains a series of images of David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the independence of the State of Israel, and, beyond them at the exit, a column of tan sandstone that is simply identified as having come from Jerusalem.

One can only hope that in addition to the American triumphalism and what even by the most generous of interpretations is a highly partisan pro-Israeli view of the creation of the state as the existential remediation of the Nazis’ war of extermination against the Jews, the intention here was to palliate what, apart from the part of the exhibit devoted to the Danes’ rescue of most of their country’s Jewish population, is the pure horror of what the museum contains by beginning and ending on an uplifting note.

The impulse is an understandable one. But it is also both a historical and a moral solecism that perfectly illustrates Judt’s admonition that the result is both bad history and bad morality.

The current emphasis both in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora that is exemplified by the museum’s last exhibit and that presents the Jewish state’s moral legitimacy as inextricably bound up with the Shoah seems to me an indefensible justification of the Zionist project in Zionist terms, at least in the long run. It is both ahistorical, since obviously Zionist-inspired Jewish immigration to Palestine far predates the Shoah, and morally dubious, since the Palestinians bear no responsibility for what the Nazis did.

As a matter of history, though not of morality, what a Zionist would be on firmer ground claiming is that at the heart of the Zionist project itself, secular and religious alike, is the conviction that the land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital is not just the historic but the spiritual home of the Jewish people, who in all their wanderings never relinquished what the Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk once called their mystical deed to it. In this sense, at least, it is surely fair to say that whatever the justice or injustice of this claim, without the preservation of Jewish collective memory over the centuries the establishment of the modern State of Israel would have been far more difficult. As he did so often, Yosef Yerushalmi got to the heart of the matter when he wrote, “Jewish historiography can never substitute for Jewish memory.”

To say this is not to imply that Zionism is concerned only with historical continuity, whether (to the extent that the two are distinguishable) real or “invented.” But it does not augur well for what the remembrance of the Shoah will become after its survivors are no longer alive — and has thus passed into what the Gemrna historian Norbert Frei categorized as “‘plain’ history” — that the first exhibit of the museum dedicated to commemorating it is in reality little more than an ostentatious display of American nationalism and that the last is kitsch Zionist theodicy pure and simple.

But unsettling and unseemly as they are, neither such American narcissism nor Jewish communitarianism tells the whole story. To the contrary, Holocaust memorials and museums are attempts to keep faith with two moral imperatives: honoring and remembering those who died and, by reminding as many people as possible of the murder of European Jewry, helping individuals and societies alike become more resistant to such evils, and perhaps even to prevent them from recurring in the present or in the future.

These matters are delicate, as they should be, and if we take such questions on we have a moral obligation to proceed with great caution. But about the argument that the memory of the Shoah is likely to have a deterrent effect — the view encapsulated in the injunction “Never Again” — there simply is no way of avoiding the conclusion that this is magical thinking, and of a fairly extreme kind. I am reminded again of Sir Nicholas Winton’s remark that no one ever truly learned anything from the past.

Yes, “Never Again” is a noble sentiment. But unless one subscribes to one of the cruder forms of progress narratives, be they religious or secular, there is no reason to suppose that an increase in the amount of remembrance will so transform the world that genocide will be consigned to humanity’s barbarous past. This is where the contemporary heirs and assigns of the American philosopher George Santayana go wrong: We never repeat the past, at least not in the way he was suggesting we did. To imagine otherwise is to leach both the past and the present of their specific gravity. Auschwitz did not inoculate us against East Pakistan in 1971, or East Pakistan against Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge against Hutu Power in Rwanda in 1994.

Yerushalmi was doubtless correct to emphasize the greater importance of memory over historiography in the Jewish tradition. But in investigating occluded truths from the past, surely it is history that must be the senior partner and memory the junior one, at least if the goal is, as it should be, to amass the facts necessary to establish an unimpeachable historical record — something that collective memory, which, as even most of its staunchest advocates concede, involves “editing” the past to further the needs of the present, rarely if ever does well.

Establishing the historical truth about a great crime while those who committed it and those who were or at least knew its victims are alive often not only should but also can be done (as opposed to cases where doing so ought but, contra Kant, often can’t be done). But such efforts require the investigators to think like historians, investigating the facts and letting the chips fall where they may.

The reality, however unpalatable, is that collective remembrance, in the form evident at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, has not always been a salutary goad to peace and reconciliation, nor has the failure to remember an injustice that a particular group has suffered been toxic to their societies. To the contrary, at numerous times and in numerous places, remembrance has provided the toxic adhesive that was needed to cement old grudges and conflicting martyrologies, as it did in Northern Ireland and in the Balkans for generations, if not for centuries.

The question arises: Despite the overwhelming consensus to the contrary, does not the historical record in the world as it is, and not the world as philosophers have claimed it should be and might one day become, justify asking whether in some places and at some moments in history what has ensured the health of societies and individuals alike has been not their capacity for remembering but their ability to forget?

What I propose is not replacing a bienpensant fairy tale about memory with a malpensant cautionary tale about forgetting. Nor do I suggest that, even if I am right about the uses of such forgetting, it should take place in the immediate aftermath of a great crime or while its perpetrators are still at large. Leaving the needs of history aside, these are moments when common sense morality and the minimal requirements of justice weigh strongly in favor of remembrance. There are certainly also times when relations between states can be improved and much bitterness removed when a state that has committed a crime against another state acknowledges its culpability. And the same is also the case when the crimes being committed are by a state against its own people.

Eventually, however, there comes a time when the need to get to the truth should no longer be assumed to trump all other considerations. Kant thought that no right action could ever have a wrongful element. Perhaps it is because I spent 15 years observing and writing about what for lack of a better term we call humanitarian emergencies, which are almost invariably situations in which (and this is very much a best-case scenario) even when relief groups are overwhelmingly doing good they are also doing some harm, but I confess I do not see how this could ever be true.

I would add that collective memory often also functions as an escape and an idyll, providing a moral warrant for nostalgia — an extremely problematic emotion ethically, not least because, to reverse Freud’s conclusion about mourning, deference to reality never gains the day. The Cuban-American writer Orlando Ricardo Menes was making a related point when he wrote, “Idyllic memories are a jeweled noose.” He knew what he was talking about: the Cuban exile community in the United States to which Menes belongs provides a textbook case of the way nostalgia and self-absorption (the other cardinal vice of the exiled and the scorned), however understandable a community’s resorting to them may be, also often serve as a prophylactic against common sense, political or otherwise.

But Cuban Americans are hardly alone in their self- imposed predicament; at various points in their history, the Irish, the Armenians, and the Tamils have been equally trapped in their own particular versions of what the writer Svetlana Boym has called “the dictatorship of nostalgia.” And Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum testifies that American Jews are no less immune to nostalgia’s temptations.

This article was adapted from David Rieff’s forthcoming book In Praise of Forgetting. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: BILL O’LEARY/The Washington Post via Getty Images

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies."  Twitter: @davidrieff