Friday, July 14, 2017

Bearing Witness to Genocide in an Interconnected World

So vital to know our history - the history of our nation and the world. This is the only way forward in an evolutionary way that moves us closer to a reality which honors peace and blesses and protects life. We each can do our part, no matter how large or small, to work toward intervening on the endless patterns of repeating unlearned horrors that have never been faced, healed, and transformed. - Molly


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.

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