Yom Hashoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Israel and amongst Jews. You can learn a little bit about the day and its origins here. You can get a sense of just how profoundly the day is experienced in Israel from Yaacov Lozowick. The day is a day of remembrance. Human beings find much of their humanity in remembrance, the acts of memory that form our own selves and that connect us to community and ancestry and create of life more than merely our present desires. People are also very prone to forgetting. Much human conflict can be found in the “war” between remembering and forgetting.
What follows is a very brief excerpt from a book of mine about both 9/11 and my personal experience of it, when I was traveling in Europe. The excerpt is not specifically about the Holocaust, but about the larger conflagration of The Second World War. It is about remembering and forgetting, and the lessons to be found in them, lessons Jews, and especially Israelis, try very hard not to – forget.
I made the two and a half hour drive from Paris to Normandy, and the closer I approached, the more I imagined an historical progress in the other direction. In childhood, I had studied with fascination, in books and school and in popular movies more or less simplistically patriotic, an event I soon came to understand as epic in proportion and which had occurred in all its horror and tragic grandeur in the years just before my birth, almost a creation myth for the world in which I lived. However, it is not a myth. The extraordinary human stories behind the liberating invasion that was the European theater’s terrible and heroic crescendo were real – are real for those who choose to do honor through memory. But memory fades, or calcifies; it is as human to turn the gaze from where it is directed as it is to let it rest there, and some prefer the subjunctive to the celebratory mood. So the lessons of felt experience become the less gripping instruction of the explained idea, and some – even those who bore the brunt of its destruction – believe they learn from the Second World War that calamity comes from the rush of free nations to war, instead of the reluctance of good people to join it. Of course, one must believe in those people’s goodness, and in the value of liberty, whatever its failings.
I drove the country roads, got lost in the little seaside hamlets, and made my way to Pointe du Hoc. I walked among the decades old bomb craters and stood near the cliff. I looked down at the rocks and the surf, and as a man who has never been to war, I tried to imagine the unimaginable. When, later, I arrived at the western end of Omaha Beach, where the monument stands to the National Guardsmen who died in such great numbers, I walked down to the water’s edge. There are homes along the road that runs beside the beach, but not many. Unlike Pointe du Hoc, there are no bunkers or trenches remaining to remind the unwitting that the sand had ever seen more than angry waves, or that the cliffs above had ever offered to those below more than a dramatic view. I scanned the waterline and tried to conjure the landing craft, the soldiers spilling into the water. I turned and faced the cliffs.
Up off the beach, at that western end, on a little rise at the end of the road that takes you down, there is, of all things, a snack bar. Imagine. I sat on an empty patio in the grey autumn and ate an onion tart. I felt both profane and proper.