Judt spoke of the problems involved in the commemoration of World War II and the Holocaust. He began his talk by outlining three notable “misapprehensions” regarding the war’s aftermath. Judt’s first point was that Europe has lived beneath the shadow of the Holocaust since 1945. His second and third points were that the genocide is the heritage of all Europeans today, and that memorializing the event is invariably important.
Judt dealt with the false belief that Europe has been darkened by the Holocaust by pointing out that most countries initially attempted to forget the tragedy. In Italy, Primo Levi’s account of the most infamous concentration camp, “Survival of Auschwitz,” was rejected by publishers on the grounds that its tale of racial persecution did not adhere to the portrait of noble resistance that the state was trying to portray.
In Holland, Dutch citizens re-cast themselves as heroic, deliberately forgetting that many of them volunteered for the German SS. “Jews wanted to talk but nobody wanted to listen,” said Judt. “In Western Europe, it took a very long time before even a simulacrum of how bad the war had been could re-enter the public mind.”
Judt dismissed the second misapprehension that the Holocaust was a common experience for all Europeans by gesturing to Eastern Europe. Eastern European countries suffered far heavier losses in the war than did their Western counterparts-Russia alone lost 16 million citizens. Eastern Europe was also empty of concentration camps. According to Judt, it therefore stands to reason that the Holocaust should not figure as strongly into their recollection as the war and another bad memory-communism. In Romania and Hungary, the memorials focus more on the misery of the gulags than the extermination of the Jews.
“As a Jew,” said David Litt ’06, “I will always equate World War II to Nazism and the Holocaust, but I’m glad that Judt brought up that this is not how many other people remember it.”
Judt then moved on to the third misconception that memorials of the Holocaust are sufficient acts of remembrance. Judt disagrees with those who find them to be the most efficacious means of recollection. Firsthand memories are more desirable for Judt, though he stated, “It’s impossible to ever determine a correct meaning of the Holocaust because those who experienced it most closely did not survive to tell about it, or if they did, they returned mute.”
In lieu of firsthand memory, memorials have been erected and they have become society’s primary means of commemoration. There are a number of problems with fixed monuments. “When people visit memorials, they can feel some level of the suffering,” said Edward Linden ’08, commenting further on Judt’s arguments.”But when they leave, they continue with their everyday life and their emotions do not go with them.”
Professor of Political Science Ron Tiersky, who was a graduate student with Judt in the 1970s, elaborated on Judt’s third point. “There can be too much memory, in the sense of too many monuments, too many conferences and memorial services,” he said. “Setting such awful memories in stone ends up a way of substituting museums for true memories, especially as the generations change.”
The countries that dealt best with the Holocaust were those that remembered it through scholarly tomes, according to Judt. In 1989, Polish historian Jan Gross published “Neighbors.” The book chronicled a small Polish village in which the Gentile citizens murdered all 1,600 of the town’s Jews. The book led to a national soul-searching in Poland, and a public apology for failing to acknowledge the crimes sooner. The book, in a sense, was cathartic. “A nation has to first remember something so that they can forget it,” said Judt.