Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Memory in an Amnesic World: Holocaust, Exile, and the Return of the Suppressed

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Memory in an Amnesic World: Holocaust, Exile, and the Return of the Suppressed

Article excerpt


In recent years, much first hand material has been collected by various institutions documenting the experience of Holocaust survivors. A constant stream of new primary documents and secondary analyses is being published. These accounts show some common themes, yet no two experiences are alike. In spite of this major effort at keeping memory alive, there is an equal push toward forgetting and/or suppressing knowledge of the Holocaust. For a number of years, the subject of the Holocaust was virtually taboo. As anthropologists, we can learn from other peoples (Haitians, Andean Indians) about how they have turned memory into mythic history. [Holocaust, collective memory, oblivion, oral history, mythic history]

All memory is individual, unreproducible-it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.

- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Forgetting makes us robust...Those who can't forget we call madmen or artists.

- Nicholas Spice, I must be mad. Review of Sigmund Frued: Wild Analysis

Was this a real scene? Or was it a fiction that my well-intentioned and good-natured memory had made up on the spot to console a broken man like me?

- Orhan Pamuk, A New Life


Being human, we are able to remember as well as to forget. In this essay, I want to argue that we cannot act without memory, nor can we understand ourselves unless we understand our own past.1 As anthropologists, we cannot hope to understand people's behavior without knowing their past histories, both objectively and as they themselves tell it. And yet, the extent to which it is possible to understand others is, at best, limited. The greater the social, cultural, and linguistic distance, the greater the limitations are likely to be. Marie Antoinette's apocryphal "Let them eat cake!" may serve as the iconic example. According to this tale, when the queen was told that the people of Paris were rioting because they had no bread, she had no understanding of what that meant. Even the translation of the story as told in English is a distortion: she said "brioche," which is not the same as "cake," yet there is no exact equivalent.

The subject that concerns us here is the Holocaust and our relation to it, as individuals and as members of families who have experienced that period in history. Should we remember? Is it good, is it healthy, to do so? Is it better, is it possible, to forget and to move on? Margalit (2002:5) speaks of an "ethics of memory," linking remembering to caring, yet he questions the cathartic, healing quality of memory and suggests that memory often "breathes revenge." Why do we want to remember, or to forget? And why do we want to talk about it? The answers are neither obvious nor simple.

Our capacity both to remember and to share our memories with others is distinctively human, since it involves the use of language and of other complex symbolic representations. The tension between our contradictory desires to remember and to forget, that too is distinctively human. The sharing of memories in a community, in a collectivity, leads to the construction of "collective memory." This, in turn, reinforces the sense of identity among the members of such collectivities. Susan Sontag, cited above, speaks of the role of photography, of the visual record, in the creation of "collective memory," stressing the selective aspect of the process of establishing such a visual record. Memorials, monuments, pilgrimages, reenactments and other concrete and ritual means serve to structure, maintain and reinforce collective memory.

A striking example of reenactment of a historic event in the interest of collective memory was the recent celebration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris by Free French troops under the leadership of General Leclerc and General De Gaulle, with the cooperation of the French Resistance. …

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