By Rabbi Oliver Joseph
You won’t forget this?! Forget about it.
I remember when I got my hand stuck in the baggage belt at the airport in Eilat, I was not five years old. I remember flying over the handlebars of more than one mountain bike; I can even recall the sensations and which parts hurt afterwards. None of these moments of my life are ones that I need to remember or that add any particular value or lesson to my life. I can recall holding my mum’s hand after life had left her body. That is an important memory.
Memory can be profound and add great meaning to life. Memory, however, can be frustrating. I cannot with any simplicity direct my brain to remember or recall the things that I would like to. I can’t remember phone numbers, numbers in general pass from my brain like water through a sieve. I sat in universities and centres of Jewish study over more than ten years and my inability to picture or recall many pages of learning often infuriates me. I remember the obscure, often the traumatic and regularly things that do not seem to be of use or of significance.
Our ability to remember is central to our essence and spirit as human beings and our inability to remember the most basic information can be terrifying. The moment at which a loved one cannot recall your name or recognise your face, might in turn cause great distress and anguish.
Considering the different ways in which memory functions and is crucial to the lives we lead, it comes as no surprise that memory is also crucial to the way we mark the Jewish year and maintain the spirit of our Jewish lives. Shabbat is observed by Jews each week across the globe to: ‘remember the acts of creation’ and ‘in memory of the Exodus from Egypt’. On Passover we are called on to: consider as if we ‘personally came out of Egypt’. On Tisha B’Av we recall the destruction of the two Temples. Crucially our communal historical memory shifts and what is crucial to one generation may shift and evolve from one generation to the next – this can be said of all the stories within the Jewish memory canon.
I believe we are in a generation in which our collective memory is transforming in relation to remembrance of the Holocaust. We are the generation in which we will see the last survivors of this great atrocity pass on and there is a profound new reality with which we must come to terms: that we will no longer interface with those who bear testament to the Shoah. The years of Shoah still hold for individual families and communities great trauma but some of that direct trauma too will pass into history and a question for Jewish people and the community beyond is what will we do with the memory of the Holocaust? What will we do with the tapestry of testimony and physical evidence that has been painstakingly collected and analysed since guns fell silent in 1945?
I work with a special organisation called March of the Living UK which for the past eight years has been taking groups of people to Poland to look into some of these deeper questions of how we remember. Our journeys are with educators of great esteem and each of our buses travels with one survivor of the Shoah who offers his or her personal testimony. I believe March of the Living UK is special because it provides for many Jewish people and non-Jews alike a forum in which to hear of the gruesome realities and history of the Holocaust in an open and critical environment. Each participant on our trips is pushed to consider the different ways in which we remember and is taught that the way in which we develop memory is rarely neutral.
Holocaust memory is scary and it might seem terrifying to people in our community that future generations will not hold the same memories we do but we must trust in our young people that they will find a way to honour those that were murdered and learn their stories. Young Jews in the UK want to move beyond the shadow of the Holocaust, to be known for our vigour and do not wish to be defined by our persecution. Our young emerging leaders do not accept without critique the story of the creation of the State of Israel juxtaposed to the closing of the Second World War. For many the nationalism of nation building is not so far from the nationalism that planted the seeds of calamity in the Shoah. These are two examples of many of ways in which the dynamic exploration of Shoah history and lessons will continue for many years to come.
We are not able to direct or control memory, not of individuals and certainly not the memory of an entire community. We can however learn and teach and promote journeys of exploration into our great and sometimes devastating history. I will return to the March of the Living again after Passover 2018 and you too are invited.
Rabbi Oliver Joseph serves as a rabbi for Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community, The Havurah, Masorti Judaism, Marom and Noam.