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Friday, 14 July 2017 07:34

Bearing Witness to Genocide in an Interconnected World

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MarianneWarsawView of POLIN Museum, facing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. This side of the monument shows the Great Deportation of 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp in the summer of 1942. (Photo: Wojciech KryƄski) Standing in front of the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, Poland, some months ago, I felt immersed in an archaeology of layered histories. The monument commemorates the unique and improbable armed uprising by Jewish ghetto partisans against Nazi forces in 1943. But it also bears witness to how the brutal annihilation of a local minority in the very heart of an urban neighborhood has been both remembered and forgotten during nearly 70 years. Now, standing in front of the remarkable new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, it speaks not only of heroes, but also of ordinary lives cut short by genocide.

Being there as a child of survivors of the Romanian Holocaust, I felt in touch with witness visitors who preceded me -- descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors like me, tourists, heads of state the world over, as well as visitors whose symbolic import resonates into the future. How could any of us do justice to the victims? What is our responsibility to them and to our own present, to the violence we continue to witness?

When Donald Trump chose not to stop there on his recent visit to Warsaw, he didn't just snub the Jewish community or fail to pay tribute to Jewish resistance, he also rejected an entangled transnational history of responsible witnessing. He thus extricated the United States from a web of shared memory and acknowledgement that goes beyond the nationalist self-congratulation that he fosters.

Bearing witness to mass violence, whether in our own time or retrospectively, means understanding its history in all its complexity. It is both an act of solidarity with victims across lines of difference and a demand for justice and accountability. Trump's gesture is not just a blunder or an omission. It is a willful disregard of yet another possible kind of transnational alliance.

At the monument, I could feel the tension that filled the square when German Chancellor Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt there in 1970 in a gesture that has defied interpretation. Was it humility, contrition, or apology? Or simple helplessness, as he later claimed, stating that words failed him. No doubt all of these and more.

I recalled the presence there of W.E.B. Du Bois who bore witness to the Holocaust and the devastated ghetto area at the monument in 1949, shortly after its unveiling. In his resulting essay "The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto," Du Bois linked the history of African Americans to that of European Jews. Du Bois wrote that "the ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become if civilization was going to triumph and broaden in the world."

But I had also read about the monument's repudiation by non-Jewish Poles, on the one hand, and its place as a site of Polish dissidence under communism, on the other. Changing meaning over the decade, the monument bore witness to Poland's memory wars and to shifting interpretation of Polish and Jewish history.

The Trump administration has shown a remarkable ignorance of the history of the Holocaust. It began with Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, when the president's speech failed to mention Jews as victims. In April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer blithely compared Hitler favorably to Syrian President Assad, asserting that at least Hitler did not go so far as to use chemical weapons against his own people, though, Spicer continued, he did send Jews to "Holocaust centers." In May, during his visit to Israel, Donald Trump did stop at Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem to deliver a speech, but only spent 15 minutes visiting the museum and wrote an utterly tone-deaf message in the guest book: "It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends -- so amazing and will never forget!" The visit to Warsaw is only one in a series of failures of responsible witness.

To be sure, one might ask why Holocaust memorial sites like Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Heroes Monument should have become such inescapable destinations for dignitaries and tourists alike. Trump did visit a memorial site in Warsaw -- Krasinski Square where the Polish uprising against Nazi occupation and the death of 200,000 Poles is commemorated.

Commemorations and commemorative visits construct history for the present.

The purity of Polish victimization and armed resistance celebrated on Krasinski Square, and the failure to acknowledge Polish complicity in the persecution and extermination of millions of European Jews might well appeal to the nationalism and isolationism of populist administrations like Poland's and the US's. After all, in his Warsaw speech, Trump -- echoing National Socialist discourse -- extolled the spirit of the Christian West and raised the specter of dangerous foreign forces. The Ghetto Heroes Monument represents a more contradictory entangled story that has the potential to reach beyond the specifics of the Jewish ghetto or the Holocaust.

Commemorative witnessing can be a spur to learn with as much accuracy as possible the violence of the past by telling the story and transmitting it to future generations. It can be a way to honor the victims, insuring that their suffering will not be forgotten. If successful, however, it must provide a way to understand the persecution of certain groups and the psychological, political and social structures that allow prejudice to become genocidal. And yet, such rituals also carry the risk of using past suffering as a basis for exclusionary group identity. This is particularly true if memory locates evil and perpetration outside and refuses to consider complicity.

This administration's ignorance of the history of the Holocaust and its connection to anti-Semitism is not unique. Although 1.3 million people annually visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, for example, The New York Times recently reported that many of these visitors "have little knowledge of the Holocaust -- and sometimes none about Frank." The Anne Frank House is undergoing massive renovation with the aim of providing a more comprehensive history, as is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. This anxiety about forgetting has occasioned plans for new Holocaust Museums in Amsterdam, Santiago, Rome and elsewhere.

The effort to provide the knowledge needed by new generations seems just and important. The unavoidability of forgetting creates particular anxieties in the face of genocidal murder and the trauma and displacement of survivors.

Yet, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I worry that singling out the Holocaust for such massive effort and that locating evil in the Nazi past could compromise present accountability, especially in the face of so many other forgotten histories and of renewed racialized persecution and suffering. As a symbol of the ghetto uprising, the Warsaw Heroes Monument has been invoked in a number of different nationalist and liberation struggles. Reconstructed in Israel in the 1970s, it came to signify Israel's armed victory against its enemies. This act of recontextualization shows how easily past suffering can be appropriated as an alibi for oppression in the present, as the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine demonstrates. As responsible witnesses, we must refuse to allow our painful pasts to be used as motives for further violence.

By now, we surely have learned the bankruptcy of slogans like "Never Again." But the massive state violence we witness in our own time should remind us that no one has a monopoly on suffering. We need to learn about each of these histories and to carry them forward. We need museums and memorials, both on site and elsewhere. We need to understand the connections between the causes for these atrocities -- anti-Semitism, racism, ethno-nationalism.

Connecting violent histories with one another, as W.E.B. Du Bois did, might allow us to see ourselves as part of a web of remembrance and of action for an interconnected future. The Warsaw monument can serve as a symbol of this kind of ethical witnessing in the present.


Marianne Hirsch teaches Comparative Literature and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Her most recent book is The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.