Holocaust Remembrance and the Task of Oblivion
Björn Krondorfer

ABSTRACT “Forgetting” plays an important role in the lives of individuals and communities. Although a few Holocaust scholars have begun to take forgetting more seriously in relation to the task of remembering—in popular parlance as well as in academic discourse on the Holocaust— forgetting is usually perceived as a negative force. In the decades following 1945, the terms remembering and forgetting have often been used antithetically, with the communities of victims insisting on the duty to remember and a society of perpetrators desiring to forget. Thus, the discourse on Holocaust memory has become entrenched on this issue. This essay counters the swift rejection of forgetting and its labeling as a reprehensible act. It calls attention to two issues: first, it offers a critical argument for different forms of forgetting; second, it concludes with suggestions of how deliberate performative practices of forgetting might benefit communities affected by a genocidal past. Is it possible to conceive of forgetting not as the ugly twin of remembering but as its necessary companion?

forgetting, memory, Holocaust, ritual, trauma, perpetrators

Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. —Elie Wiesel (1982, 32) I have forgotten. If they haven’t forgotten, it’s their concern. I in any case have forgotten. —Klaus Barbie (quoted in Suleiman 2006, 103) [F]or my terror of forgetting is greater than my terror of having too much to remember. —Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1996, 117) [I]t will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness. —Friedrich Nietzsche (1887/1969, 58)
JRE 36.2:233–267. © 2008 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc.


Journal of Religious Ethics

1. Introduction
TO SPEAK ABOUT FORGETTING in the context of the Holocaust, or of any genocidal atrocity for that matter, is an act bordering on immorality or, in any case, on callousness, for it seems to refuse empathy to, and acknowledgment of, the suffering of the victims. To advocate forgetting, it seems, moves dangerously close to denying the historical events and to erasing memory itself. In the decades following 1945, the semantic, discursive, and political conflict—accompanied by a host of emotional and quasi-religious layers—between remembering the Holocaust and forgetting the Nazi atrocities have regularly, and almost predictably, been played out between two communities: the victims and the perpetrators or, as the above quotations starkly remind us, between Jews and Germans. Because perpetrators in their public and private speech have expressed a desire to forget, while survivors have insisted on remembering, the ensuing and continuous discourse on Holocaust memory has become entrenched in recurring and sometimes clichéd ways. These dynamics have helped to impede much constructive thinking about the role of forgetting as an important cultural force. Forgetting, I will argue, should be treated less as the ugly twin of remembering and more as its necessary companion. This essay, then, counters the swift rejection of forgetting and its labeling as a reprehensible act so common in popular Holocaust rhetoric. Although I do not present an argument against memory itself, the essay calls attention to two issues. First (and constituting the larger part), it offers a critical argument for different forms of forgetting, some of which are inevitable, others intentional. Second, it concludes with a few constructive suggestions of how deliberate performative practices of forgetting might benefit communities affected by a genocidal past. Throughout, I remain conscious of the positioning of any talk about forgetting in post-Shoah situations.1 Susan Suleiman’s reminder that “injunctions to forget ring very hollow when they are pronounced in certain contexts—for example, by perpetrators of the crimes in

1 I was born in Germany a few years before the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, and I migrated to the United States a few years after the 1979 showing of the American television series Holocaust. Given this background, I am aware of the unstable and contestable position to speak as a German about the permissibility of “forgetting” in a Holocaust context. Readers familiar with the postwar German discourse on the past will easily recall the many publicly and privately rehearsed desires to forget, and scholars familiar with post-genocidal situations can just as easily point to the general desire among perpetrators to keep a lid on the past. I am, however, not arguing for a wish to forget that is based on escaping justice or on eluding complicity and culpability on the part of a perpetrator society (see Krondorfer 1995, 2004; Krondorfer et al. 2006).

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question” (Suleiman 2006, 216)—is heeded by differentiating between victims, perpetrators, and their respective discursive environments.

2. Rhetoric of Remembrance
Given the fundamental role that forgetting plays in the life of an individual and a community, it is surprising to realize that hardly anything positive has been said about forgetting in Holocaust discourse. Without much sustained thought or critical examination, forgetting has often been identified as the antithesis of remembrance, as an attempt at distorting and denying the reality of genocidal anti-Semitism perpetrated by Nazism. The discourse has assigned cathartic, religious, and sometimes quasi-magical powers to remembrance—in often repeated phrases such as “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it,” “not granting Hitler a posthumous victory,” “from destruction to remembrance,” “in remembrance lies the secret of deliverance.” Forgetting, on the other hand, is denigrated as an activity in which only perpetrators and their descendants, anti-Semites, and revisionists would engage. Forgetting is viewed as a form of individual repression and cultural amnesia, as a mental operation that, if not done with outright malicious intent, can only be explained as a kind of psychic defense or psychological pathology. The case as presented above is somewhat exaggerated, but it makes the point that a ubiquitous rhetoric of remembrance, especially in public commemorations and popular discourse, has pushed aside a more careful analysis of the role of forgetting. Those engaged in Holocaust discourse, as consumers and producers, have experienced and participated in such assumptions. This is certainly true for the justification and rationale of institutional memory keepers: Holocaust symposia, exhibits, centers, memorials, archives, and museums appeal habitually to the language of remembering by assigning to remembrance the twin functions of vigilance and redemption. Decades after 1945, a cultural consensus seems to have emerged that inscribes, frames, mediates, performs, and archives Holocaust memory (see Stier 2003). The anxiety over unhealed wounds, unmet justice, social amnesia, and contemporary Holocaust denial has led to a culture of reiterative performances of memory. The rhetoric of the “duty to remember,” “never forget,” and “never again”2 every so often slides into individual and communal expressions
“The rhetoric of ‘never again,’ ” Wollaston writes, “reflects a widespread assumption that keeping memory of these events alive . . . is the best way to sensitize society.” There are, however, some dangers, Wollaston continues: “Less optimistic observers concur with


Journal of Religious Ethics

Design for the new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Note the sharp separation of the black half of the building on the left and the white half on the right, reflecting a good/bad, right/wrong moral dichotomy. The Center’s webpage justifies the need to build an additional Holocaust museum and appeals for funds to accomplish their goal. “This world-class museum is dedicated to preserving the memories of those lost in the Holocaust and teaching current generations about the need to fight hatred, intolerance and genocide in today’s world” (

of cliché and pathos, most strongly observable in various fundraising appeals and newsletters of Holocaust institutions as well as in the arena of Holocaust politics and in education. When my students in their early twenties are touched emotionally by aspects of the Holocaust, they often announce with great sincerity, “I will remember forever,” or “For the rest of my life, I will never forget”—and thus quietly and hyperbolically assume that events in their own lives will never replace their vicarious emotional identifications. The “never again” rhetoric of remembrance has turned the cultural activity of forgetting into anathema. A good Holocaust student does not participate in forgetting, but in remembering. There is “the prejudice,” Miroslav Volf writes, “that ‘remembering’ is always good and ‘nonremembering’ always bad” (Volf 1996, 132). Forgetting has been categorized as a mental and cultural activity that is used only by “others,” a taxonomic operation that helps to maintain a sharp distinction between the good ethics of remembering and the bad desires of forgetting.
the observation of one survivor that, rather than ‘never again,’ ‘the lesson of Auschwitz is that you can get away with it’” (Wollaston 1996, 7).

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Forgetting is a highly charged concept in the context of the Holocaust. Juridically, this was recognized, although not at first, when it was decided that the Statute of Limitations would not apply to murderous Nazi crimes.3 Ethically, one can argue that the duty of individual remembering should also not fall under a statute of limitations, thus extending it into the future through intergenerational transmission, educational programs, and archival documentation. Atrocities on the scale of the Holocaust, so the argument in favor of focusing on remembrance proceeds, cannot and should not be forgotten, neither collectively nor individually. Yerushalmi’s dire warning that forgetting opens the door to malignant manipulations of history bears repeating:
Against the agents of oblivion, the shredders of documents, the assassins of memory, the revisers of encyclopedias, the conspirators of silence, against those who, in Kundera’s wonderful image, can airbrush a man out of a photograph so that nothing is left for him but his hat—only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard [Yerushalmi 1982/ 1996, 116].

Edith Wyschogrod expresses a similar anxiety when she, too, posits the historian as the doorkeeper against oblivion: “Nietzsche may have been right in proclaiming that remembering the past is a sick passion; yet without the necrophilia of the historian who gives herself over to overcoming the past’s passing into oblivion, there would be only the finality of death” (1998, xi). However, neither law nor archive nor historian can ultimately prevent forgetting. Even Elie Wiesel’s famous incantation of “never shall I forget” in Night expresses more than just an ethical demand against forgetting; the negative phrasing expresses a deep-seated anxiety. After all, he does not say, “I shall remember.” Intuitively, his negative dictum recognizes the paradoxical fact that forgetting is part of remembering, that it is an inevitable part of living, of being alive.4

3 In Germany, discussions about the Statute of Limitations with regard to the murderous crimes of Nazis were held in 1964, 1969, and 1979. In 1979, five months after the showing of the television drama Holocaust in Germany, the German Bundestag decided that such crimes would not come under the Statute. In 1964, France, for example, voted that Nazi crimes would not fall under the Statute of Limitations, incidentally the same year that the French National Assembly “enacted . . . a law of amnesty for crimes committed by Frenchmen in Algeria” (Suleiman 2006, 67). 4 Harald Weinrich writes in a similar vein: “It must be said . . . that this vow does not suffice to solve the problems of the memory of Auschwitz or to ward off in a definitive manner the dangers of forgetting. We can already see this in the fact that Wiesel has chosen for his vow . . . the double negation ‘Never shall I forget.’ Will he in fact not forget?” (Weinrich 2004, 184).


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In recent years, scholars of the Holocaust from various disciplines have become aware of the limits of remembering. Several book and chapter titles indicate such awareness: Preserving Memory (1995) is Edward Linenthal’s title for examining the creation of Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, implying that without preservation, memory will be forgotten. Barbie Zelizer’s book on Holocaust photographs is called Remembering to Forget (1998), and her last three chapters continue with the word play, “Forgetting to Remember,” “Remembering to Remember,” and “Remembering to Forget.” In Committed to Memory (2003), Oren Stier titles his conclusions “Remember Forgetting/Forget Remembering.” The last chapter of Susan Rubin Suleiman’s Crises of Memory and the Second World War (2006) is called “Amnesia and Amnesty: Reflections on Forgetting and Forgiving.” Outside of specialized Holocaust scholarship, chapters on forgetting in relation to the Holocaust have been added to philosophical, historical, and cultural treatises (for example, Yerushalmi 1982/1996; Margalit 2002; Weinrich 2004).5 Others have started to examine critically the recent “memory boom” or “memory cult” in regard to overextending the conceptual value of memory (Berliner 2005) and its potential abuse for identity politics and the legitimization of national ideologies (Todorov 1996; Winter 2000). In 1988, Yehuda Elkana, philosopher-historian and a survivor himself, published “In Praise of Forgetting” in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in which he criticized the overemphasis on remembrance (Grob 2008).6 As these samples illustrate, scholars recognize that memory and remembrance are not uncomplicated processes but are formed and informed by individual styles, personal trauma, narrative choices, cultural forces, political agendas, and national interests. Questions are being asked about how Holocaust memories are shaped by cultural and social frameworks that allow for a condensed and crafted narrative to emerge. If memory is a volatile and flexible mental operation, how do we preserve it? What kinds of memory are stored and recorded? What are the silently implied and explicitly stated messages of the growing body of archived testimonies? Technological

The final chapter of Margalit’s The Ethics of Memory (2002) is called “Forgiving and Forgetting”; Weinrich’s exhaustive study on Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting (2004) dedicates his final chapter to “Auschwitz and No Forgetting”; and Yerushalmi added a postscript to the original edition of Zakhor (1982/1996), “Reflections on Forgetting.” See also David Berliner, who speaks of the need of “forgetting studies” in anthropology to counter the “overextension” of the concept of memory (Berliner 2005, 205, 198). 6 For a German translation and citation of Elkana’s “Plädoyer für das Vergessen,” see Zuckermann 1998, 19.


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advances allow the storing of huge quantities of (increasingly digitalized) testimonies—but how and by whom can such “secondary acts of remembering”7 be remembered? These and similar questions are usually addressed under the rubric of the problematics of remembering rather than of the desirability of forgetting. Even Oren Stier’s detailed and critical research on the “mechanisms and media” of public Holocaust memory, which concludes with an appeal to forgetting, ultimately frames the tension between remembering and forgetting as an issue of remembrance (Stier 2003, xii). Stier recognizes that “remembering and forgetting [are] techniques of engagement with . . . the past,” but imagines “forgetting” as the “ghost brother” of memory, who raises “its ugly head in every memorial situation” (191–92). In his conclusions, Stier argues tentatively for a “provisional letting go of remembrance,” but what he has in mind is actually not an abandoning of remembrance but a letting go of “the desire for lessons” from the Holocaust (216–17).

3. Searching for Perfect Memory
Marc Augé, in his essay Oblivion (2004; originally published as Les formes de l’oubli in 1998), argues strongly for the necessity and permissibility of forgetting. Augé’s essay, informed by an ethnographer’s lens, the French literary tradition, and an understanding of religion referencing Paul Ricoeur and echoing Georges Bataille, does not mention the Holocaust except briefly in his three-page epilogue. His essay is nevertheless useful for understanding Holocaust memory, and it is no accident that James Young—a prominent name within the field of Holocaust memory, memorials, and monuments (Young 1993, 1994, 2000)—has written the introduction for the English edition. In his foreword, Young refers to Jorge Luis Borges’s (1999) fable about a young man who cannot forget anything because he has a perfect memory.8 As a consequence, he cannot live in the present because he is a prisoner of the past, forced to relive it second by second, hence incapable of giving his life any meaning. The fable points to a simple logic: Without forgetting, the human species would have to relive the past continuously and never live in the present moment. Without forgetting, there would be no future.
By “secondary acts of remembering” I am referring to testimonies that are no longer directly related by survivors to an audience but, instead, mediated through auditory and visual media (audiotapes and videotapes) and in digital form, such as DVDs and the Internet. 8 Borges’s story is frequently mentioned in discussions on forgetting, as, for example, by Yerushalmi (1996, 102, 116), Suleiman (2006, 215–16), Weinrich (2004, 210–12), and Wyschogrod (1998, 174).


Journal of Religious Ethics

This insight can be applied to the modern occupation with Holocaust memory, especially in light of the capability of storing, preserving, and archiving individual memories. The accumulation of video testimonies is a good case in point to illustrate the dilemma that crops up when technology seems to make available a nearly “perfect memory.” In 2005, I sampled six institutions that have produced and archived taped Holocaust testimonies. At Yale University, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony has collected 4,300 tapes, ranging from thirty minutes to forty hours in length, with a total of over 10,000 recorded hours. Recorded are individuals who had “first hand experience of the Nazi persecutions”; the webpage also informs the reader that the Fortunoff Archive “stands as a living memorial to counteract forgetfulness, ignorance and malicious denial” (Fortunoff Archive n.d.(a) and (b)). The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has 7,000 audiotapes and videotapes in their collection, of which 1,600 were produced by the museum’s own oral history branch. The Holocaust Oral History Archive of Gratz College in Pennsylvania has 800 taped testimonies. The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Center in Melbourne, Australia has recorded and collected about 1,500 videotapes of survivors, each tape ranging in length from one to eight hours. Yad Vashem in Israel has built up a collection of 37,000 testimonies, of which the museum itself produced 6,300 audiotapes and 5,500 videotapes. Finally, the Shoah Foundation claims on their website to have recorded nearly 52,000 testimonies9 of mainly survivors and other witnesses, the average length of each tape lasting two and a half hours. These numbers are staggering. What once was almost a forgotten event has turned into one of the most covered and recorded events in history. Certainly, this holds true for the number of primary witnesses interviewed and recorded. If one were to add up all the original testimonies recorded by these six institutions (Yale, Washington, Melbourne, Gratz College, Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem) and calculate an average rate of two and a half hours per tape (the average tape length at the Shoah Foundation and Fortunoff Archive), one would arrive at 177,500 hours of recorded testimonies. This number translates into a continuous watching of and listening to tapes for 7,400 days or about twenty years—eight years longer than the duration of the National Socialist regime itself. Such mathematical equations are of limited use in determining the value of collected materials. “Time lived” operates differently from narrated time. On the one hand, a narrated life can condense a lifetime into a story or book to be consumed in a few hours, while, on the other,


In November 2005, 50,963 testimonies were counted.

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it may take a person a lifetime to gain a full understanding of a particular historical occurrence that may have lasted only a few months or years. Nevertheless, the above numbers should make us pause; today, institutional memory keepers have created a memory bank that is overwhelming in duration, size, and amount of stories—a memory bank so huge that it is impossible to remember. What do we do, then, when faced with at least twenty years of recorded video and audio testimony of the Holocaust? Preserving and remembering are not the same things. With our technical advances, the act of preserving memories has long overwhelmed our human capacity to remember; or as has been argued before, in an age of memory inflation, the archiving and memorializing itself can be seen as permission to forget.10 Yerushalmi, who is motivated by the fear of willful destruction of memory, would rather err on the side of accumulating facts of the past: “Let the flood of books and monographs grow, even if they are only read by specialists. Let unread copies lie on the shelves of many libraries, so that if some be destroyed or removed others will remain” (Yerushalmi 1982/1996, 117). Others, like the Swiss author Loetscher, take the opposite view; anxious about modernity’s limitless accumulation of data, he has pleaded for deleting all electronically stored data during a “world wide ‘extinction-fest.’ ” Why? Because “this century had remembered too much” (Loetscher 1984, 187; see also Weinrich 2004, 210). Forgetting, it seems, is not (always) a bad moral choice but simply a human way of staying anchored in the present.

4. Oblivion As the Life Force of Memory
I propose not to pair forgetting automatically with denial and amnesia but to explore its linkage with the more neutral term of

Whether we can even speak of “memory” in the context of archiving and storing of information, especially in our digital age with its unlimited capacities, is questionable. What the technical accumulation of information accomplishes is retention rather than memory. “Memory,” Tzvetan Todorov observes, “is essentially a selection: certain traits of an event are conserved, others immediately or progressively set aside and forgotten. Hence it is baffling that the ability computers have to save information is termed memory, since they lack a basic feature of memory, the ability to select” (1996, 8). In a historical study of the Christian Middle Ages, Patrick Geary writes that “unlike a computer that stores data and then retrieves it intact, memory transforms its data” and that “the various processes of assimilation and selection are extremely important in understanding creative remembering” (1994, 20). Yerushalmi, in contrast, does not see “memory” as the human ability to select and transform (rather he sees it as “essentially unbroken” and “continuous”) and locates such human capacity in “anamnesis,” which is the active “recollection of that which has been forgotten” (1996, 107). For the notion of archiving “memories” as a permission to forget, see Huyssen 1995.


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“oblivion,” with the latter viewed as a necessary and essential cultural task. The term “oblivion,” which derives etymologically from French and refers to “forgetfulness,” may not be a perfect way of addressing my concerns about forgetting. I nevertheless adopt it here for both strategic and conceptual reasons. Strategically, within Holocaust discourse, oblivion might be a less emotionally charged term and does not conjure up the same political, cultural, and theological baggage as forgetting. A semantic switch may make it easier to consider the intellectual credibility of an argument about the necessary task of non-remembering. Conceptually, oblivion points to a dimension of forgetting that is more ontological and epistemological in character than primarily political, social, and psychological. As such, we can distinguish between, on the one hand, willful acts of neglect and denial (which constitute political or psychological forms of forgetting) and, on the other, unavoidable modes of memory production based on sedimenting, condensing, suppressing, and expunging lived experiences of the past. It is the latter I suggest calling “oblivion.” Without oblivion, neither individuals nor cultures would be able to sustain themselves in the present. Without oblivion, we would not even be able to remember, because remembrance needs an organizing principle by which we make meaning out of the plethora of information from the past.11 Augé writes: “Oblivion is the life force of memory and remembrance is its product” (Augé 2004, 21).12 When applied to the contemporary debate about Holocaust memory, what Augé suggests here is nothing less than reversing the primacy that Holocaust discourse has assigned to forgetting and remembering; forgetting is no longer the undesirable waste product of remembering, but oblivion is what makes remembering possible in the first place. If “oblivion is the life force of memory,” as Augé puts it, then the memories we retain are “the product of an erosion” (Augé 2004, 20). When we turn memories through a process of erosion into remembrance, we do so by telling tales, by giving them a narrative frame by which we understand them, are able to communicate them, and pass them on. The creation of a tellable Holocaust story out of the vast
11 Todorov, who sees human memory as a process of selection, also does not posit memory in “opposition with oblivion.” Rather, memory always interacts between the “contrasting pair [of] effacement (forgetfulness) and conservation” (1996, 8). 12 Suleiman makes us aware that Augé distinguishes here and elsewhere the French “la mémoire” from “le souvenir,” the former “designating the faculty of remembering” and the latter “refers to a specific thing remembered.” Suleiman prefers to translate the French “oubli” not as oblivion but as forgetting. Hence, she offers the following alternative translation of this sentence: “Forgetting, in sum, is the dynamic force of the faculty [la mémoire], and memories [le souvenir] are its product” (2006, 215). For an etymological review of “oblivion,” see Weinrich 2004, 3.

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amount of past everyday experiences requires a forgetting on the part of the teller and the listener. How else, for example, would a survivor tell a contemporary audience about her hunger day after day after day, hour for hour for hour? How would she tell about the pangs of starvation she felt when walking, waking, sleeping, dreaming? How would she tell about the hunger that lasted forever, that for her was eternal, because there was no end and no redemption in sight? Language, which condenses years of lived experience into the form of a story that can be told and remembered, inevitably betrays the totality of memory. In this sense, remembrance is not the preservation but the betrayal of the totality of memory—and it cannot be otherwise, nor should it be otherwise, if we want survivors to live in the present. Survivors are bearers of untellable memories, an “un-story, that escapes quotation and which memory does not recall,” as Maurice Blanchot so aptly put it in The Writing of the Disaster. It “cannot be forgotten because it has always already fallen outside of memory” (Blanchot 1986, 28). The process by which the totality of memory moves to a tellable story parallels what David Heler-Roazen suggests is true for the acquisition of language itself. In his book, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, he asks, “What happens to the many sounds the infant once uttered . . . before he learned the sounds of a single language?” What the infant forgets, he says, is not language itself, “but an apparently infinite capacity for undifferentiated articulation.” “It is,” he writes, “as if the acquisition of language were possible only through an act of oblivion” (Heler-Roazen 2005, 11). Similarly, at the beginning of every Holocaust remembrance, the part of memory that is tellable, is an act of oblivion. It would not work otherwise. The totality of memory, without erosion, would sound like echolalia, the “involuntary repetition of phrases or words uttered by others” (Webster’s II).13 It would be unintelligible to the listener. Just as the phonetic amnesia of the infant is necessary for acquiring the mother tongue in order to communicate intelligibly, the existential, trauma-induced oblivion of Holocaust survivors is necessary for acquiring a language that can render the experience of extreme humiliation, loss, and pain communicable. “The man of tears who restrains himself no longer, who lets go

13 The parallel to language and phonetic amnesia suggests that access to a “totality of memory” is simply not possible; it can never be fully retrieved, accessed, or actively remembered. In this sense, the phrase “totality of memory” is itself a construct, something that actually does not really exist, since any kind of memory, traumatic or otherwise, is already always a product of some selection and (re)collection (see also note 11). But the phrase “totality of memory” is helpful insofar as it points to the fact that—short of physiological decline or material decay—there is always an excess of memory that cannot be accessed, retrieved, and communicated.


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of himself,” writes Blanchot in his aphoristic style, “is without words, bereft of power” and like a “child’s mere babble” (Blanchot 1986, 8). Without oblivion, one would be helplessly caught in the past, forced to repeat it without end and without being able to make sense of the once lived experience. Augé, in his only reference to the Shoah, correctly perceives that “those who survived the Holocaust . . . do not need to be reminded of the duty to remember. On the contrary, their duty has been to survive the memory, to escape . . . from the everlasting presence of an incommunicable experience” (Augé 2004, 87).

5. Victims: Trauma and Oblivion
Holocaust memory, like all memories of atrocity and genocide, are complicated by the fact of trauma. Not only are survivors of catastrophes unable to comprehend the totality of their memory, their condition is also characterized by “the inability to convey their experiences, to utter the unutterable” (Zertal 2005, 55). Because of the traumatic content, survivors themselves experience a tension “between the desire to forget and the need to remember” (Wajnryb 2001, 78). The simultaneous urges to keep silent and to witness are fed by the same source of irretrievable loss and (still present) pain. The deeper the trauma, the more unsettling the present, with the result that not only the primary but also the secondary witnesses can be left with “a depressing sense of obsession and despair,” left stranded without seeing any redemptive value in remembering (Apel 2002, 6). People involved in the process of recording Holocaust memory—from the eyewitness to the interviewer, from the technician to the archivist, from the researcher to the listener or viewer—know about the emotional effort it takes when remembering and preserving traumatic stories embedded in large-scale social upheavals. When looking at trauma through the lens of remembrance—the dominant mode in Holocaust discourse—survivors and scholars alike have pointed to the limits of remembrance as a failure of language, to the ultimate incommunicability of extreme suffering and trauma (for example, Wiesel 1990; Langer 1991). Just as the magnitude of the Holocaust overwhelms the capacity of language to adequately express the terror and fear experienced on such a wide scale, survivors may be overwhelmed by the discrepancy between the totality of memory and their attempts to represent these events through the inevitably constrained acts of remembering (see Wajnryb 2001, 113). When the totality of memory continues to intrude into the present life of survivors, their silence may be the most authentic act of remembering— because such wordlessness, rooted in continuously felt pain and despair, testifies to a visceral memory that remains incommunicable and

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unrecognizable even to the survivors themselves. “He could never tell me about the horror he knew when he was my age,” writes Jacob Climo about his American childhood contact with his teacher Mr. Sarnoff, a Jewish survivor from Czechoslovakia. “I could feel him suffering as I suffered, from an inability to speak about his pain. Sarnoff and I remained prisoners of silence” (Climo 1995, 183). Mr. Sarnoff’s imprisonment in silence as an authentic act of remembering is, in effect, a non-remembering, because it fails to shape memory into something communicable between the primary and secondary witness. “I could never ask [Mr. Sarnoff] about his experience,” Climo recalls (183). Recognizing the dilemma of ultimate incommunicability, many writers have worried about popular culture’s trivialization, commodification, and fetishizing of Holocaust memory (see Friedländer 1984, 1992) and, as a consequence, have advised restraint when representing massively experienced traumata. However, as regrettable as popular mis/representations of the Holocaust are, they may be an inevitable byproduct of the incommunicability of trauma and the totality of memory. As a commodity, they fill a void. To present trauma in a trivialized fashion is to transform the unutterable into a recognizable form. Todorov distinguishes between the “literal” and the “exemplary” ways of remembering an event. A testimony being told in a literal form is being told for its own sake, “leading nowhere beyond itself . . . and extend[ing] the consequences of the initial trauma to each moment of existence.” Here, the person remembering is, so to speak, a prisoner of the past, rendering himself or herself vulnerable to being consumed by despair without redemption. The exemplary way of remembering, on the other hand, is to “open memory to analogy and to generalizations . . . [and to] extract a lesson from it.” Whereas the literal way is “submitting the present to the past,” the exemplary way is to “use the past in light of the present” (Todorov 1996, 14). In the latter case, Holocaust remembrances, which possess sociopolitical, moral, and educational value, are a strategic practice. As a strategic practice, remembrance yearns for meaningful lessons. However, it is this yearning for lessons that makes Holocaust testimonies easily “dependent on moralizing pedagogy” and renders them vulnerable to being turned into master- and meta-narratives that risk a “moralizing political instrumentalization” (Apel 2002, 5–6). When Stier suggests the need of a “provisional letting go of remembrance,” he expresses his discomfort with such desires for lessons and meanings (Stier 2003, 216). “We may wish,” he writes in his final paragraph of Committed to Memory, “to let go of our desire for memory unconnected with forgetting” (217).


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Both approaches—first, regarding Holocaust memory as the nonredemptive condition of an ultimately incommunicable despair and, second, regarding Holocaust representations as a strategic practice for lessons and “memorial pedagogies”—are based on the dominant explanatory mode of the value of remembrance (Simon et al. 2000, 3; see also Apel 2002, 5). But what would happen if we looked at trauma through the lens of oblivion rather than approach it through the problematics of remembrance? Performing such an ocular shift, I suggest, not only helps to discern the beneficial role of oblivion, but also makes us aware of differences between oblivion and intentional acts of forgetting. Let me first address the beneficial aspects. Oblivion in relation to trauma is a necessary step toward creating the means for continuing to live in the present (and this is not meant only in a therapeutic sense). Remembrance as a product of oblivion is the acquisition of a language that is the result of memory eroded, and thus shaped. The more inexperienced the remembering speaker (survivor), the more raw and unshapely the memory, the more fragmented it is in its traumatic content. Such rawness may not make a good story, but it is more closely aligned with a memory less eroded. It is a memory before language, in which the survivor remains prisoner of its visceral expressions, of the oppressiveness of nightmares, and of daily habits grounded in fear. The more a witness is caught in the past, the more he or she must fear getting lost in the pain of the past as if it is present. Lawrence Langer has used the terms “anguished memory” (a memory in search of its form) and “humiliated memory” (a representation of “pure misery” and “distress” that shatters all forms) to account for testimonies unprotected from the spillage of the past (Langer 1991, 77). In anguished and humiliated memories, the traumatic content of the past spills into the present and contaminates it. Some survivors, as we know, could only escape the shattering presence of the rawness of trauma by committing suicide. “Marked out by their impossible, intolerable isolation,” they were no longer able to connect to the “world of ordinary living” (Zertal 2005, 53). An unmitigated and unmediated totality of memory does not allow the survivor of a catastrophe to live. “Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all,” Nietzsche wrote in a different context (1874/1980, 10).14

Although Nietzsche’s thoughts on forgetting appear in a very different context, they can be applied to the necessity of oblivion in the lives of survivors of any atrocities. In his foreword to Oblivion, Young relates Augé’s concept of “oblivion” to Nietzsche’s reflections on forgetting (Augé 2004, xii); Langer also recalls Nietzsche in his explorations of “anguished memory” (1991, 40).


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“There is a right to oblivion” (Todorov 1996, 12). Oblivion, in contrast to the totality of memory, helps the rawness of trauma to take on forms of remembrances that are manageable by survivors and recognizable by secondary witnesses. It is often only through the reiterative performance of what at first is an untellable memory (Blanchot’s “un-story”) that a recognizable story emerges. Repeated public performances of traumatic experiences in the form of tellable stories have a cathartic effect. As repetitions, they erode, channel, and control the totality of memory. Such reiterative performances of remembrance are acts of oblivion—and they allow the primary witness to live in the present without being a prisoner of unrelenting despair.

6. Intentional Acts of Forgetting
Once a remembrance (as a product of erosion) is wrested from the individual’s totality of memory, it no longer just belongs to the individual but has entered the public domain as something communicable, even if the public is limited to a small circle. It is no longer possessed exclusively by the remembering person; entrusted to others, it can be passed on, recorded, and selectively recalled by third parties. Thus, a remembrance will be further shaped by cultural forces, disciplining its rawness and neutralizing the immediacy of loss and pain. Narrative patterns emerge that are responding to the expectations of the social milieu in which the past is recalled. For example, Holocaust testimony given at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the 1960s differs from testimony given in front of a video camera in California in the 1990s; a story of survival told to an American Jewish audience elicits different responses than the same story told to a non-Jewish audience in Germany or Poland. Expectations, responses, and ideological frameworks influence the way testimony is given and received. While all remembrances are subject to oblivion and hence products of erosion, not all remembrances are equally subjected to being shaped by the public. If a primary witness testifies only once (for example, during a judicial trial or for a taped recording), his or her testimony might be a more literal (Todorov 1996, 14) way of remembering and, hence, be less susceptible to cultural influences—although it would not be entirely free from such influences because of the fluid reciprocation of personal narratives and social environments. But a testimony that is presented repeatedly to the public has a far greater chance of being exposed to external influences independent of the authenticity of the speaker. It is in repeated enactments that normative discourses are simultaneously stabilized and opened up to the possibility of destabilizing alterations (see Butler 1999). Each time a testimony is publicly


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retold, it solidifies its content as it simultaneously opens itself up to linguistic, stylistic, and interpretive changes. I am less interested here in pursuing the various influences and interdependencies of individual testimonies in relation to changing discursive landscapes. Rather, I want to explore the epistemological shift from inevitable oblivion to intentional acts of forgetting in relation to Holocaust remembrance. Philosophically speaking true forgetting can never be intentional, if by true forgetting we mean that the content of an event is entirely erased from a person’s memory and can no longer be recalled, even if archival evidence, like a document, is presented to this person. This kind of forgetting “cannot be voluntary” (Margalit 2002, 201) and is variously subject to neurological brain functions, age, or illness. I am using here “forgetting” in a different sense, more mundane, practical, psychological, and cultural; I can forget my car key (but still remember having left it at home), I can forget a birthday (but can be reminded of having done so), I can forget to deliver a message (because its content was discomforting), or I can wish to forget something by silencing it or destroying everything that reminds me of its presence. In each case, the content of what is forgotten can be made to be recalled or remembered, even if, in some cases, the remembering takes more effort, because people may have buried, suppressed, or repressed a particular event. It is in this sense that I speak of intentional acts of forgetting. As I have argued above, remembrances are products of erosion, which separate them from the impossibility of the totality of memory and from the (traumatized) silence of non-remembering. Remembrances constitute those recollections from the past that have taken on some communicable and publicly recognizable forms. As such, they are already exposed to a number of cultural forces and influences, including acts of neglect, denial, and manipulation. Although we would hesitate to assign any malign intentionality to primary witnesses of the Holocaust, they, too, participate in voluntary and intended acts of forgetting, if simply in the form of not telling a particular incident in a given testimonial situation. The motivations for such forgetting can be manifold, ranging from deliberate choice to inadvertent omission or subconscious suppression. Survivors may, for example, feel unsafe in particular environments; they may want to protect the listener (often close family members) from a particular gruesome and humiliating experience; they might repress an event because of its morally compromising content (the so-called “gray zone”); they may accidentally forget to mention a particular episode despite their intention to tell it; or they might react to some perceived disinterest on the part of the audience.

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Beyond the primary witnesses themselves, it is often in the process of secondary witnessing15 in which intentional acts of forgetting take on significance. Sometimes, testimonies are pressed into master- and meta-narratives that reflect their social, political, and national embeddedness. The disciplining of the original rawness of a memory by pouring it into the dominant molds of national mythologies, for example, can serve ideological interests independent of the authenticity of the individual witness. Scholars have pointed out that in national meta-narratives as many things are forgotten as are remembered (see Steinlauf 1997; Zertal 2005; and Grob 2008). Ernest Renan’s famous nineteenth-century claims that “forgetting . . . is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” and that the “essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things” still remain true for today’s fascination with remembering, memorializing, and commemorating human-made catastrophes (Renan 1882/1990, quoted in Bhaba 1990, 11). In a twentyfirst-century version, Tony Judt argues that Europe’s post-1989 institutionalized “surplus of memory” of the Holocaust and the Second World War, which has established new national collective identities, needs “some measure of neglect and even forgetting” as the “necessary condition for civic health” (Judt 2005, 16). Deliberate acts of memory manipulation are, certainly, forms of intentional forgetting. This is the case when one chooses from a plethora of remembrances (understood here as public utterances) only those that match a particular agenda, thus willfully excluding (that is, forgetting) others. This is usually the point when critics speak of the misuse of Holocaust memory. “In recent years,” Suleiman writes, “the ‘duty to remember’ has itself provoked a critical counterdiscourse . . . [and] the critics of ‘the duty to remember’ have pointed to the dangers of an ‘abuse of memory’ ” (Suleiman 2006, 224). Similarly, Jay Winter argues that the “original work of remembrance” has frequently “been taken over by groups in power who feel they have the right and need to tell us through commemoration how to remember the past” (Winter 2000, 72). Legitimating narratives are established, turning testimonies into testimonials and putting them and other forms of commemorating and memorializing into the service of authoritative claims about history in order to “galvanize action in the present” (73).
“Secondary witnesses” are people who did not experience the events directly; because they “cannot recall the events themselves, they recall their relationship to the memory of the events” (Apel 2002, 21). Secondary witnessing can be done by descendants of the victimized communities, descendants of perpetrators, and by people not directly related to the traumatic events themselves. Depending on the social and historical location of secondary witnesses, their acts, motivations, and understandings of “witnessing” vary widely.


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In sum, so far: By distinguishing between the inevitability of oblivion and willful acts of exclusion, we begin to see different kinds of forgetting at work in relationship to Holocaust memory. At one end of the spectrum is the oblivion that is necessary for the possessor of traumatic memory to continue living in the present; at the other end is a willful distortion or denial of the Holocaust, usually at the hands of national interest and aggravated in the case of perpetrator nations; and in between are located all kinds of involuntary, voluntary, willed, and active acts of forgetfulness. Because remembering and forgetting are activities by which people negotiate the past, present, and future, different things are at stake for different communities. So far, I have focused the attention on survivors and traumatic memory. I have adopted and expanded Augé’s notion that oblivion is at the beginning of all acts of remembering; it is its life force, not only inevitable but also deeply helpful. When traumatic memories emerge in forms that are intelligible to the survivors as well as to secondary witnesses, the various communities of tellers and listeners can alter such particular remembrances by further acts of forgetting. Forgetting, then—understood broadly as a further removal of the remembered story from the original traumatic experiences—is a distancing from the totality of memory by altering and removing its remembered content. It involves a certain kind of distortion. Remembrances as tellable stories can be embellished, sentimentalized, adorned, spiritualized, sanitized, tabooized, trivialized, and politicized; they can also be compartmentalized, neglected, avoided, censored, and denied. When we talk about a community of tellers of, and listeners to, Holocaust remembrances, we need to be attentive to different forms of forgetting that are informed by all kinds of interests, from the individual’s wish for moral and mental integrity to national agendas. With this in mind, we now need to turn our attention to perpetrators.

7. Perpetrators: Shame and Oblivion
Given the distinction between, on the one hand, oblivion as a necessary and existentially beneficial form of forgetting and, on the other, intentional and willful forms of neglect and manipulation as a result of the malleability of remembrances, we need to ask whether any of these insights can be applied to perpetrators. One can expect that Nazi perpetrators (and post-genocidal, culpable nations in general) are more interested in intentional acts of forgetting than are the remnants of a victimized community. Perpetrators have skeletons in their closets, and they are eager to build upon a history of things undisclosed. As Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon,” said in utter cynicism and

Is Forgetting Reprehensible?


disregard for the Jews he deported from occupied France: “I have forgotten. If they haven’t forgotten, it’s their concern” (Suleiman 2006, 103). Victims of violence and survivors of atrocities, on the other hand, give testimony as a way to disrupt a discourse of veiled cruelty. “The writing of testimonies,” remarks Antonella Fabri in the context of the Mayan ethnocide in Guatemala, “enables the victims . . . [to struggle] against the imposition of silence and forgetting . . . and to disseminate and fragment the knowledge enforced by the state” (Fabri 1995, 154– 55). Given such discrepancy of motivations between perpetrators and survivors (see Card 2002), can we grant perpetrators and their descendants the privilege of oblivion? Does not the global community always have to be wary and vigilant about the perpetrators’ malign desire to willfully forget? Certainly, when it comes to forgetting and remembering, perpetrators of genocidal violence must be treated differently from survivors of an atrocity. Testimonies of Nazi perpetrators and their accomplices differ fundamentally from testimonies of Jewish survivors, because perpetrators have an interest in trivializing the harm inflicted on their victims and in reducing their own culpability. As a general rule, perpetrators have reasons to distort the truth. While a victim resists the rawness of trauma spilling into his or her life, the perpetrator resists the acknowledgment of individual wrongdoing in relation to his participation in collective evil. Hardly any of the convicted Nazi war criminals acknowledged their wrongdoings as a personal failure. Theologically speaking, they never repented. On first sight, this maddening lack of acknowledgment is less a result of non-remembering and more a refusal to recall what they, as perpetrators, did; they terrorized, maimed, tortured, and murdered. In a post-genocidal society, in which former perpetrators are bereft of their former political power, perpetrators have often rejected what they perceive as an externally imposed and coerced way of remembering. In postwar Germany, the (former) Nazi perpetrators resisted with defiance and national pride the Allied reeducation campaigns and judicial trials as they equally shunned the memories of the remnants of victimized communities. In their stubborn refusal, they were able to hold on for a long time (openly or secretly) to their ideological beliefs or to the conviction of the necessity of their deeds. References to the “memory” of victims were thus met with defiance. In such a climate, “the subdued joy of the perpetrators over the loss of memory is the best argument for inscribing the narratives of their misdeeds in stone,” observes Volf perceptively (1996, 131). No wonder that the remnants of victimized communities had to insist on the duty to remember and to never forget. Besides active denial, however, there may be another reason for perpetrators to refuse to remember. Do they resist remembering


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because they cannot acknowledge, and hence comprehend, the full weight of their moral failure as human beings? Their refusal, quite pragmatically, might be driven initially by the fear of retribution and legal punishment. But on a deeper level, it is also a fear of oneself; fully realizing the extent of one’s cruelties must be as shattering to the perpetrator as the full realization of pain and loss is shattering to the existential integrity of the survivor. In acts of unprecedented cruelty—as they occur in full-scale genocidal assaults—both victims and perpetrators have “seen something that nobody should have seen, something that should have never occurred—something irrevocable for both” (Vetlesen 2005, 207). The totality of memory is unbearable in both cases, and the ultimate escape from such realization is to end one’s life: the survivor in despair, the perpetrator out of shame. If we held open the possibility of perpetrators being able to feel shame, we would need to concede that their memory also falls under the life force of oblivion. The cold and stoic manner in which Nazi perpetrators described their cruelties during postwar interrogations and at their trials (recall, for example, Eichmann’s catatonic public attitude16 at his trial in Jerusalem) could be read not only as willful denial (which it also was) but also as a symptom of oblivion. Their recollections are full of voids and absences. When reading their testimonies and trial records, it quickly becomes obvious that genocidal mass murderers rarely ascribe agency to themselves and that they are not moved to compassion for their victims. Such reactions can be attributed to cynicism and heartlessness. However, what if these attitudes were the result of a deeper blindness, a blindness already in place at the moment of the actual wrongdoing? When atrocities are performed in the name of a collective identity, individuals may in fact not see the inhumanity of their deeds in the very moment they enact them. They neither perceive their own actions as individually willed nor do they truly see their victims’ faces, that is, recognize people in their subjectivity. Hence, when perpetrators later testify, they do not so much misremember as they actually—with respect to their own selective memory—remember “correctly.” Their victims have always been absent from their view, at the moment of the mistreatment and murder as much as at the moment when perpetrators are asked to recall their wrongdoings.17 Effacement, then, is already built into the initial act of genocidal evil. As far as the
“Catatonic” is not used as a clinical term but in a general sense. Vetlesen writes with great clarity about the genocidal dynamics of shame, guilt, and responsibility among both victims and perpetrators. Perpetrators, he argues, do not see their acts of cruelty in terms of individual evil because genocidal ideology frames violence in terms of collective action and collective agency. In “collective evil,” he writes, “the individual agent from the very start sees himself as acting on behalf of his group.”
17 16

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perpetrators are concerned, they do not remember the victims in their trial testimonies because they never saw them in their humanity to begin with. What perpetrators did not acknowledge (to themselves) when committing the atrocity, they cannot recall later. From a moral perspective, people ought to be able to recognize evil acts at the moment of their enactment or, if they failed to do so and became perpetrators, to acknowledge their guilt at subsequent trials. However, blocking out victims from consciousness may not only be caused by cynicism and willful denial (although this happened, too) but also constitute a self-preserving form of oblivion. For if the full moral weight of cruelty spilled into the speech of perpetrators during their trials, language would have to fail them. Why? Because the unmediated totality of memory would have pushed itself into the realm of an utterable performance and as such would have revealed the unbridgeable discrepancy between the perpetrators’ past atrocities and their present self-perception as decent human beings. Time and again, accused Nazi war criminals portrayed themselves as passive and without subjectivity, and hence “innocent.” Similarly, character witnesses, who have testified on behalf of the accused, stressed their human decency (Anständigkeit). “Im Grunde ist er ein anständiger Mensch” (“basically, he is a decent human being”) was a refrain used in variations in defense of the accused. To imagine (and hence remember) the opposite—namely the subjectively willed, intentional slaughter— would have shattered the self-sense of human decency, in whose name perpetrators tried to exculpate themselves. What would have happened if an awareness of the irreconcilability between the perpetrators’ moral failure and their professed decency had broken into their testimonies? Perpetrators might have been reduced to a child’s babble, to echolalias, because at the bottom of the abyss lurks that which cannot be uttered without serious consequences to one’s identity: shame. To elude the unutterable, the shallow “remembrances” told by perpetrators are either repetitions of an unreconstructed and unrepentant justification of the necessity of their deeds or the constrained, dispassionate, and technical descriptions of their committed atrocities, in which they, as moral agents, are strangely absent. What is true for Holocaust survivors is, partially and for different reasons, also true for Nazi perpetrators: memories that threaten to shatter the integrity of the primary witness are difficult to reconcile with one’s present life. For survivors, it is unbearable pain, which oblivion mediates. For perpetrators, it is crushing shame, which oblivion alleviates.
“Genocidal logic,” he continues, obliterates individuality and “de-individualizes” the victim (2005, 172, 260). Hence, a perpetrator does not perceive individual guilt and shame.


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These structural similarities, however, should not tempt us to neglect a crucial distinction: while many survivors had the courage to retrieve from the totality of memory deeply humiliating and shameful aspects, an equivalent courage is sadly missing among perpetrators. The community of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, for example, might want to forget uncomfortable and morally compromising parts of the past (those that fall into the “gray zone”) or those events that make them vulnerable in the present (like sexual and excremental assault),18 but numerous survivors have provided testimony even in the face of morality-defeating extremity and emotional adversity, making themselves vulnerable to tainted and unheroic memories.19 Perpetrators have rarely taken such risks in postgenocidal situations. Despite the perpetrators’ lack of risk-taking, which is evidenced in the historical record, it is important on conceptual and moral grounds to hold on to the possibility that they are capable of truly recognizing their culpability. Oddly, the notion of oblivion as the life force of memory may help to comprehend the discrepancy between historical record and moral claim. If the refusal of perpetrators to remember and thereby acknowledge their moral failure is indeed rooted in their past blindness as well as in the powerful force of shame in the present, then oblivion is necessary for perpetrators to continue living with themselves in a post-genocidal present. Put differently, oblivion on the part of perpetrators is the refusal of a memory that requires the acknowledgment of one’s own moral failure. It is ultimately a resistance to the spillage of shame. Paradoxically, such a refusal or resistance on the part of the perpetrator renders him human (rather than a monster). It is in his humanness (because he wants to continue living and be perceived as a “basically decent” person) that he cannot accept the crushing weight of shame. It is here that the perpetrator is granted his moral agency, even if he failed such agency. In their failed humanity, perpetrators emerge in their subjectivity not outside the human condition (as monsters), but within. This observation leads to a counterintuitive conclusion: for perpetrators to be morally accountable, they must be granted the right to be human and hence the right to oblivion.

18 For the “gray zone,” see Primo Levi 1988; see also Zertal’s excellent discussion of the “Nazis and Nazi Collaboration (Punishment) Law,” which Israel passed in 1950 in order to “bring to justice a handful of ‘collaborators’ from amidst the Jewish survivors themselves” (2005, 60). For sexual and excremental assault, see Des Pres 1976; Karay 1998; and Ringelheim 1998. 19 For Langer, “tainted memories” are “stained by the disapproval of the witnesses’ own present moral sensitivities,” and “unheroic memories” are “soiled by the spectacle of an abnormal and humiliated dying” (1991, 122, 165).

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The consequences are disturbing. As much as one may wish a genocidal perpetrator to admit culpability, it might be unrealistic to expect from him a demonstration of his ability for human compassion by asking him not to forget. Suspending the role of oblivion—that which assists in his efforts of self-preservation—would be to take away his identity, his life. Having to face one’s shame, without protective mental operations, has the power to wipe out a person’s existential grounding. If not suicide, then social death would be the unavoidable outcome. From a victim’s perspective, this may be a risk worth taking, since one can legally and morally argue that genocidal perpetrators have forfeited their rights to life anyway. From a perpetrator’s perspective, the means to circumvent a memory that would lead to recognizing the face of the “other” and to acknowledging their own shameful agency is to resist such memory or to perceive it as an external force imposed on them by the victors. What a functioning justice system can do in a post-genocidal situation is to enforce the true naming of the crime and prosecute the true nature of the crime, and hence establish a documented and archival remembrance. What it cannot do is to coerce a perpetrator into remembering rightly. Although the moral demand for individual perpetrators to remember rightly and repent publicly cannot be abandoned, to ask them to reveal their humanness by willingly not to forget the totality of memory (that is, to recall the human faces of their victims as well as their own human choices) means, in fact, to require them to grow beyond themselves, to become exceptionally human. Such exceptional cases exist, but rarely. “If the perpetrators remember rightly,” Volf suggests in his theological wrestling with remembering, forgetting, and forgiving, “the memory of their wrongdoing will help restore their guilty past and transform it into the soil on which a more helpful future can grow” (Volf 1996, 131). The empirical evidence flouts such theological hope, and the generation of perpetrators usually goes to the grave without public repentance. The task of remembering rightly, then, will have to fall onto other people, other generations. It will, in fact, become a moral task for the descendants of perpetrators. In postwar Germany, it was left to succeeding generations to begin to integrate memories of shame into acts of tellable remembrances. No longer chained to the oblivion of perpetrators, they had the freedom to reject willful acts of forgetting. They took on vicarious guilt and vicarious responsibility (see Vetlesen 2005, 281–88) precisely because the generations of their parents and grandparents could not face the scope of their own collective moral failure. Postwar German generations engaged in and invented vicarious forms of ritualized performances in order to atone for crimes that had exceeded the legal


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capacity for adequate punishment and a generation’s human capacity to admit full culpability.20

8. Ritualized Forgetting: Return, Suspense, and Rebeginning
What are the possibilities of vicarious engagements, of performative practices of forgetting, that seek to rectify injustices in the past? Is it possible to constructively appreciate different forms of forgetting in a post-Holocaust world or, as Nietzsche put it, to engage in “active forgetfulness” (1887/1969, 58)?21 Can forgetting be facilitated in deliberate and ritualized ways? Can post-Shoah generations turn the companionship of forgetting and remembering into community-building efforts without shortchanging the victimized communities and without supporting the perpetrators’ “subdued joy . . . over the loss of memory” (Volf 1996, 131)? Can creative experimentations prevent Holocaust memory—in its capricious, unruly, dangerous, traumatic, malleable nature—from calcifying into national memorials? I will address these questions by suggesting just a few pathways, thereby outlining the beginnings of a praxis-oriented trajectory of a constructive ethics of forgetting. For this, I return again to Augé, who proposes “three forms of oblivion” by which past, present, and future can be negotiated to the benefit of communities. As an ethnographer, Augé has African rites in mind when he identifies these three forms as “return,” “suspense,” and “rebeginning.” I suggest that these ritual forms of oblivion can be applied creatively to working through the effects of the Holocaust in a post-1945 world. 8.1 Return Briefly stated, Augé calls the first form of oblivion the “return,” by which he refers to the ambition to “find a lost past again by forgetting the present” (Augé 2004, 56). The example he uses is possession rites, in which a person is possessed by another presence, such as a spirit. By erasing her own presence, the possessed returns “in order to reestablish a continuity with the older past” (56), while the non-possessed are witnessing her transformation, her return. Testimonies of Holocaust survivors can function in similar ways. The more traumatic the content of a testimony, the more the present is erased and replaced by the
In cases of genocidal evil, “the solution is not the rational demonstration of innocence but ritual cleansing: purification,” writes Jeffrey Alexander (Alexander 2002, 45). 21 The phrase “active forgetfulness” appears in On the Genealogy of Morals, followed by the sentence quoted at the opening of this article: without it, there “could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present” (Nietzsche 1887/1969, 58).

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seeming immediacy of the memories that are recalled. The past returns. It actually can return so forcefully that it literally possesses the primary witness in the process of remembering. “Remembrance is enacted as a difficult return,” Simon et al. write, “a psychic and social responsibility to bring the dead into presence” (Simon et al. 2000, 4; see also Apel 2002, 5). Possessed by memory, survivors return to the (now) internal landscape of ghettos and camps, from which, on some level, they may have never escaped. In retelling their lives, their return to the unsafe places of their memories is witnessed by a community, who can absorb their stories from the safe distance of the unpossessed. The ritual quality of the return to the past, however, does not leave the secondary witnesses unaffected. As in all efficacious rituals, the “possessed” give testimony of the past that becomes present, and such “present past” affects and spills over to secondary witnesses. Traumatic testimonies, as they are passed on to subsequent generations as vicarious memory, have the potential to transfer a secondary kind of affliction to these generations.22 Testimonies can be so powerful that they displace the present and make it forgotten. They may possess the listener such that the present is temporarily rendered insignificant and, in the long run, rule the present with their implicit moral grammar. When the ritual condition of possession comes to an end, details will be forgotten. Nonetheless, the Holocaust as moral compass will be remembered and repeated by new generations. Just as a traditional spirit possession moves toward an anticipated conclusion (otherwise, a ritual possession would threaten to engulf the whole community, thus rendering it ineffectual in the present), the telling of a Holocaust remembrance will eventually end, restoring reasonable safety for the secondary witnesses by allowing them also to forget. Yet, after a ritual is completed, its effects will linger. Perpetrators, in most cases, will refuse to be possessed by the past. Perhaps some of them had their souls torn apart internally, if they allowed themselves to recognize the immorality of their deeds. If this happened, it remained invisible. What we do have, instead, is a public and documented record of perpetrators showing little to no signs of a return (a possession by the past) visible to the community at large.

“Vicarious memory,” writes Climo, is “a concept that refers to strong, personal identifications with historical collective memories.” Vicarious memories are “passed from one generation to the next,” are “learned covertly,” and “evoke powerful feelings in individuals, which link them to important group events they did not experience directly in their individual lives but which impact greatly on their identities and connect them profoundly to their heritage and culture” (1995, 176–77, 183). See also Klein 2006 on the impact of survivor video testimonies on the third generation.



Journal of Religious Ethics

Instead of being possessed by shame about their (past) failures, perpetrators seem rather obsessed about professing their (present) decency. They are invested in announcing their blamelessness rather than in acquiring empathy for their victims. It falls onto the descendants of perpetrators to perform symbolically such a return. Because perpetrators failed so see their deeds in individual terms as they acted in the name of a collective, their exculpating perception of collective agency will have to be translated into a generationally transmitted collective responsibility. Today, the descendants need to ritually return to the past, to the source of unacknowledged shame. “This performative purification,” writes Jeffrey Alexander “is achieved by returning to the past, entering symbolically into the tragedy, and developing a new relation to the archetypal characters and crimes. . . . It provides catharsis, although of course it doesn’t guarantee it” (Alexander 2002, 45; see also Vetlesen 2005, 286). We could say that descendants of perpetrators are enabled to assume the task of performing a vicarious return. 8.2 Suspense Augé’s second form of oblivion is the “suspense,” a provisional cutting off of the present from the past and the future. The present is suspended from the past and the future, as if it possesses neither. Augé is thinking here of rites of inversions that take place in “interregnum and sometimes off-season periods.” Periods of suspense are marked by liminal settings with an often carnivalesque atmosphere and “sexual and social role reversals” (Augé 2004, 56). Applied to the constructive role of forgetting within a Holocaust context, I propose to seek liminal spaces in which provisional role reversals for people affected by the Holocaust are allowed. Such role reversals and social inversions can foster compassion and become building blocks for a positive ethics of forgetting. In liminal, that is, transitional and protected, spaces, people affected by the Holocaust are permitted to forget temporarily the social location into which the past has placed them. In other words, they do not so much return to the past as creatively reconfigure it. The ritual quality of suspense is not meant for the generation of survivors; for them the return to the past is reserved. It would be morally wrong and humanly cruel to ask Holocaust survivors to imagine, let alone enact, the reversal of the roles of victims and perpetrators. But even among survivors, such ritual reversals occasionally occurred. In Judaism, an occasion for carnivalesque exuberance falls on the holiday of Purim, when the community celebrates the defeat of the evil Haman (the Persian minister, who had plotted

Is Forgetting Reprehensible?


against the Jews) by actively dis-remembering his name.23 In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, some survivors staged Purim plays in Germany’s Displaced Persons camps, where they did not dress up as the genocidal villain of old, Haman, but as his contemporary double, Hitler. In The Redeemers, Leo Schwarz recalls the almost festive atmosphere of the Purim celebration in the Displaced Persons camp of Landsberg in Bavaria: “By ten o’clock the costumed jesters invaded the streets. . . . Like circus clowns, they ran through the streets to the delight of the jubilant onlookers. As to the winner there was no question. Who but Berek Gold, dressed as the classic prototype of Hitler?” (Schwarz 1953, 113; see also Eisenberg 1981, 552).24

Purim play in the Displaced Person camp of Landsberg, Germany, 1946. A Jewish DP dressed up as Adolf Hitler. Photo Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Sam Gordon. (The views expressed in this article, and the context in which the image is used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Whenever Haman is mentioned in the reading of the Scroll of Esther, his name is drowned by noise—an intriguing act of intentionally trying to blot out any memory of him. 24 On a more somber note, Yerushalmi talks about the invention and celebration of “second Purims” as a vehicle of medieval Jewish communities to connect the memory of Haman to the “deliverance from some danger or persecution” of their own times (1996, 46).



Journal of Religious Ethics

For perpetrators, suspense is an inadequate ritual form of forgetting because they have never accepted their responsibility to begin with. We do not need to ask them to ritually reverse roles because, after the war, they have portrayed themselves as victims all along, claiming to have suffered under an imposed victor’s justice and to have been coerced into a “duty to remember.” One could say that perpetrators have already settled to live permanently in a false state of “suspense,” which they do not intend to abandon.25 The whole point of “suspense” as a ritual form, in contrast, is its provisional character, so as not to inscribe false identities but to allow for compassion to grow. Therapeutically speaking, some perpetrators might benefit from a paradoxical intervention of role reversal but only to permit them to identify temporarily as a victim so as to punch holes into their psychic defenses. A certain amount of facilitated self-pity might open their eyes to the people they had victimized—perhaps for the first time. Suspense as a facilitated form of active forgetfulness, then, is mostly meant for the descendants on both sides, victims and perpetrators, and not for the first generation, the primary witnesses. In this sense, we are not talking about the trauma and wounds of the Holocaust itself but about the effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations. Ritual suspense gives permission to these generations to forget temporarily their communal and collective identities through ahistorical reversals, granting them the freedom to provisionally change perspectives, invert expected attitudes, and move beyond a normative discourse. It is a willing and voluntary suspense of belief in one’s historical grounding. It disrupts the conventions of communal and collective identities. Facilitated encounter and dialogue groups among post-Holocaust generations have already experimented with such ritualizations in order to break through defensiveness and to foster listening skills.26 Spaces of temporary ahistoricity can have cathartic effects, because each participant can ritually experience the other’s burden of

This psycho-social dynamic may correspond to the observations that so many perpetrators—when called to testify later—feel a need to present themselves as passive victims of circumstance, as people with no choice. The perpetrator has a “need to disempower himself, to claim that he was just an instrument for the carrying out of the will of others” (Vetlesen 2005, 217). Thus, he does not have to face individual responsibility. 26 Techniques borrowed from the therapeutic realm—such as doubling, amplification, role reversals, and active listening skills—are frequently employed in non-traditional Holocaust programs that emphasize the interpersonal and intercultural dimensions of the relationships between Jews and Germans, including other people affected by the Holocaust and the Second World War.


Is Forgetting Reprehensible?


remembering and forgetting. In their initial moral burlesqueness, such spaces of suspense transgress official Holocaust discourse and, by doing so, open windows for empathetic understanding. 8.3 Rebeginning Lastly, Augé calls the third form of oblivion “rebeginning,” an ambition that aspires to envision the future by forgetting the past. As its “emblematic ritual form,” he has in mind initiation rituals, in which the past is forgotten “at the moment when a new awareness of time emerges” (Augé 2004, 57). Rites of passages are such moments that mark the transition into something new, closing a life’s stage or chapter so as to be ready and prepared to be pushed into a new phase. Such rebeginnings in the context of contemporary Holocaust discourse are not found in the creation of new museums and memorials but in the initiation of genuine dialogue across religious, cultural, and national differences. People from different sides of the historical divide left by Nazi genocidal anti-Semitism would bring to the encounter their baggage from the past without letting the weight of the baggage determine their journey together. Exchanging their experiences of, and predicaments with, the remembering–forgetting dyad can be viewed as a form of mental and cultural gift-giving, an exchange that allows them to live together in their present lives and communities. This is a rebeginning not in the sense of a revisionist past but of a re-envisioning of the future, so that the past does not, against one’s best intentions, dictate the lives we still have to live.

9. Conclusion
Arguing for the need to differentiate between remembering, forgetting, and oblivion, I realize that there are no impeccable distinctions and clearly marked boundaries between these terms. I fear there is an unavoidable fuzziness to the whole phenomenon. However, I hope to have successfully raised awareness about an unexamined dimension of the current Holocaust discourse, which has elevated remembrance to an unquestionable virtue and has taunted forgetting as something undesirable and reprehensible. Differentiating between various kinds of forgetting can initiate a new conversation about the permissibility of forgetting. Any appreciation of forgetting is complicated by Christian appeals to forgiveness. Although I cannot address this tension here, further reflections on forgetting will have to wrestle with this issue, and it would be prudent not to stereotype Christianity as a religion of forgiveness and Judaism as a religion of remembrance—this stark


Journal of Religious Ethics

Tikkun/Mending (2006). Art project on post-Shoah Jewish-German relations by Karen Baldner and Björn Krondorfer. Papercast hands, handstamped. Photo courtesy Karen Baldner.

dichotomizing is already itself a result of a post-Holocaust dysfunction.27 We may hesitate to embrace Volf’s suggestion of the “redemptive role” of forgetting by placing the latter (which he also calls “nonremembrance”) into a Christian eschatological horizon of a final redemption
27 Such stereotyping captures some truth, but it is worth remembering that, for example, “memoria was a key organizing principle” in Christian medieval theology and that, for Augustine, “memory [was] the highest intellectual faculty and key to the relationship between God and man” (Geary 1994, 17–18). Equally, forgiveness is central also in Judaism, especially relevant during the high holidays of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.

Is Forgetting Reprehensible?


(Volf 1996, 119–40). However, perhaps we are willing to consider developing not only an Ethics of Memory (Margalit 2002) or an Ethics of Remembering (Wyschogrod 1998) but also an “ethics of forgetting.” A good and sustainable ethics of forgetting, rooted in the essential and healing role of oblivion, may want to start with the performative practices of the three ritual forms of forgetting: the return, the suspense, and the rebeginning. Religion—both as a reflective discourse and a communal practice—can play an important role in developing spaces where ritualized acts of active forgetfulness can transpire. The purpose would be to help erode traumatic memories that paralyze and to allow compassion to flourish between and among those deemed “others.” Perhaps we have dismissed forgetting in the context of the Holocaust so easily because we have linked it primarily to the malignant forces of revisionist denial, willful exclusion, intentional neglect, intended evasions, and a lack of compassion for the experiences of the victims. Perhaps it is time to revisit the necessary task of oblivion, out of which a constructive ethics of forgetting can emerge.28

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28 This article benefited greatly from the advice and support of my colleagues Laura Levitt, Rachel Baum, Peter Haas, Leonard Grob, Katharina von Kellenbach, and Amelia Klein. I received valuable feedback when first presenting an early, shorter version at the Holocaust and Genocide Group of the American Academy of Religion in 2005. Thanks also to Avinoam Patt, who made me aware of the photograph about the Purim play in a German DP camp, and to Janet Haugaard for her editorial corrections.


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