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How to Remember the Shoah

Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, fall 2021

Almost unimaginably, the writer Aharon Appelfeld, who survived the Shoah as a child, put love at the center of his memory of that time:

For me—and I hope this won’t surprise you—memories of the war are bound up with a lot of love. Endless love. Everything was catastrophic, everything was death. On the personal level, though, there was extraordinary devotion. If you said a nice word to someone, you had saved him, because he had been on the brink of death. Not to mention someone handing you a slice of bread, or a quarter of a slice of bread. On the brink of the abyss, on the brink of death, there was tremendous love. My world did not remain that of the hangman; my world did not remain that of unending evil that has no repair. I remained with people, and I loved them.1

The memory of the Shoah contains many voices, many ways of bridging our memory of the past and our responsibility to the present. Let me begin with the most personal.

I am a woman and mother who lives in Jerusalem. I am also the daughter of a survivor. On arriving in Israel in 1948, my mother, Rina Govrin (Regina Rega Poser Laub), underwent plastic surgery to remove the number tattooed on her arm at Auschwitz. As a child, I did not know that my mother “was in the Holocaust,” that she had survived murderous aktions (attacks and roundups) in the Krakow ghetto; the concentration camps at Płaszów, Auschwitz, and Birkenau; and the “death march” to Bergen Belsen. Nor did I know that she was saved thanks to the willpower of ten women who called themselves the Zehnerschaft (she, the only nonreligious woman among nine ultra-Orthodox women). My mother never told me about the murder of her first husband; about how she ran after the lorry with children from the Kinderheim (children’s “home”) at Płaszów, among whom was her eight-year-old son on his way to the gas chambers; nor about how her friends held her back. I also did not know that after the liberation she commanded the Bricha (the Illegal Escape) in the British zone of Germany, part of a movement responsible for smuggling hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe to Mediterranean ports on their clandestine escape route to Palestine.

My mother kept her silence. She refused to be a victim. But the emotional scars of her story were burned into me. Vague negative images during childhood, outlines of horror and struggle, of weakness and guilt, of the power of survival and Eros: zones of pre-memory that become the deep foundations of story, of myth.

Twenty years after her death, I could no longer run from the duty to give voice to the silenced memory, to “remember” that which I had never lived. After years of denial, what had been seared into me demanded to be exposed. In search of my mother’s story I went to the women who had survived with her and were still alive, to archives, to a meeting with the German prosecutor in the Hannover trial in which my mother testified against one of the Krakow ghetto commanders; to a report deposited at the Haganah Museum relating my mother’s activities in the Bricha; and to the unexpected meeting with the woman who had been the kindergarten teacher in the Krakow ghetto of my mother’s son, my exterminated brother. Crumbs of material, like the pieces of body tissues collected after a terror attack.

And the rest? What was the meaning of those unsettling tatters I had discovered of my mother’s story? And what is the “memory” of someone who was never there?

What to Transmit—and How

From among the crumbs of information a fiction necessarily takes shape. A historian—or anyone for that matter—needs a burst of imagination to fill in what is missing, to weave a story out of events and chronology. As for me, I excavated the non-verbal emotions transmitted to me in my attempt to create the “living” characters of my mother, her first husband, her son who perished. Fiction enabled me to get closer to them, at last, to give them presence. The story’s power made it possible to create continuity, albeit partial, between the “there” and the here and now, between that which was cast out as “the other planet” and its multifaceted and mighty continuations, whether revealed or concealed.

How can one transform the transmission of memory so that it not only looks to the past or perpetuates the trauma but also renders it into a force for life and becomes a commitment in the here and now?

And what is the compulsive urge to transmit, to tell? Is it responsibility? Duty? To the past? To the present? And what are the forms and formulations of transmitted memory, both personal and collective? And how can we name the unnamable?

From the moment I felt the duty imposed on me to tell what had been silenced in my mother’s life, I understood that what I had experienced as a most intimate and hidden secret was dizzyingly like the experiences of many others of the second and third generation, that my most personal story was not an individual one, but a shared one.

But that understanding left me with urgent questions. More than seventy-five years after the conclusion of World War II, with the dwindling of the generation of survivors who carry within them the horrors of that event, how will its memory be transmitted to those who were not there? How can one retain the memory of the individual human being at the heart of the collective memory? And how can one keep the appeal to humanity at the heart of the transmitted memory of an event whose core was the extermination of human beings? Finally, how can one transform the transmission of memory so that it not only looks to the past or perpetuates the trauma but also becomes a commitment in the here and now?

While the voices of the last surviving witnesses are still heard, and alongside the battle of historians to expose the facts and overcome attempts to deny or rewrite history, the responsibility to pass on the memory of the Shoah passes to the next generations. If survivors like Appelfeld and my mother had their memory of the Shoah seared into them directly, the next generation carries a memory marked by temporal and spatial distance from those terrible events. The mounds of rubble have today become flourishing cities, the killing fields and the mass graves have been covered over by fertile fields, but the deep ramifications linger. The survivors’ bleeding wounds have been covered by a scab that has blunted the pain and enabled them to build new lives and to have children. But the generations after the rupture bear the residue within them, as individuals, nations, ethnic groups, and states. Generations of the biological descendants of all the participants in the extreme event of the Holocaust—the descendants of the survivors, and of the perpetrators, of passive observers, and of righteous non-Jews—bear traces of the trauma, both that which was verbalized and that which was silenced. Those traces are expressed directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly.

Christian-Western vs. Jewish Remembrance

Most forms of Shoah remembrance focus on trauma—exposing, describing, and documenting the trauma, and transmitting it to the next generations. Collective memory focuses on preserving an open wound—stoking the memory of destruction and creating the means to transmit it. This sort of memory teaches moral lessons through exposing participants to the trauma and helping them experience it anew. However, as the field of trauma care has repeatedly shown, reenacting a trauma merely destabilizes the fragile recovery process and serves only to return the victim to the paralyzing experience of the trauma.

Too little attention has been paid to the way Western and Christian consciousness have deeply shaped our memory of the Shoah—beginning with the term “Holocaust” itself, a Latin phrase meaning “a whole-burnt sacrifice.” This term reveals a fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism (one that can only be briefly sketched here): Judaism awaits the return of sacrifices and celebrates the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, wherein Abraham ultimately refuses to sacrifice his son and sacrifices a ram instead.2 The impulse to sacrifice was blocked. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b), Abraham’s very attempt is described as an act of Satan. In Judaism, unlike early Christianity, martyrology never became an accepted norm.

Christianity celebrates the end of sacrifices and the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, wherein God sacrifices his son. Jesus’s suffering and death bear witness to holiness (“martyrdom” deriving etymological from the Greek word for “witness”) and atone for the sins of believers. Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers, said: “The blood of the martyrs constitutes the seeds of the Church.” This is the foundation for the postwar martyrological appropriation of the murdered Jews, as for example in the sanctification of Edith Stein, murdered as a Jew and sanctified as a Christian, and the posthumous baptism by the Mormon Church of hundreds of thousands of Jews slain in the Shoah.

Shoah remembrance ceremonies continue to burn this traumatic Shoah memory into each new generation. Based as they are on exposing and reenacting trauma, such commemorations sanctify victimhood. Yet Jews trapped in the Nazi extermination apparatus had deeply different mythical and cultural models. In the midst of the Shoah, Jews did not see themselves as martyrs—as holy sacrifices. Nor did they regard their suffering as bearing witness to holiness. Death was not given a halo of holiness. In the face of evil and divine hiddenness—in the face of destruction—they fought for their spirit and their lives. In the words of Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, who was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, “This is a time for sanctifying life, not for sanctifying God by dying. In the past, our enemies demanded the soul, and the Jew sacrificed his body for the sanctification of God’s name. Now the bitter enemy demands the Jewish body, and it is incumbent upon the Jew to protect it and preserve his life.”3 Staring destruction in the face, Jews fought for their spirit and their lives—in all their manifestations of humanity, in their despair, and in their preservation of human uniqueness. This light breaks through the heart of the Shoah’s evil darkness, inspiring awe for the human spirit. To me, this represents the heart of Shoah remembrance.

And yet most Shoah memorial sites foreground the Nazi extermination apparatus and the suffering of the victims. The museum at Auschwitz emphasizes the details of the industrial slaughter rather than the prisoners’ fight against human and spiritual erasure. Remembering in this manner empowers and perpetuates the horrors, grants Nazism and its crimes superhuman dimensions, and transforms them into objects of instinctive fascination. Today, the memory of the Shoah, focusing as it does on the graphic presentation of the ways victims were tortured by power of evil, constitutes a perverse source of inspiration.

The shaping of Shoah remembrance as “Holocaust,” along the lines of Western culture and its Christian foundation myth, also carries political implications. Myth runs deep within a culture, determining how it experiences reality. Consciously or not, a society’s myths violently construct reality in line with its own themes. In Christian myth, Jesus plays the role of sacrifice, not the Jews. The Jews play the role of the heretics who betray the sacrifice, Jesus, and bring about his crucifixion.

The history of Shoah memory therefore should not surprise us: As years passed and the Shoah drew farther and farther into the past, it ceased to play the role of the sacrifice which the murdered Jews had once (unwillingly) played—a role which generated much sympathy for the young State of Israel among Christians. Western society later transferred this role from the irritating Jewish object to the Palestinian victim. Seen through the lens of the dichotomy between absolute good and evil so essential to the Christian notion of martyrdom, the martyr/ shahid evoked feelings of admiration and compassion. At the same time, Jews—in their Israeli incarnation—were returned to their traditional role as victimizer. (This is not to diminish the severity and tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the magnitude of suffering it involves, which requires its own appropriate articulation.) Cast in the rigid forms of myth, the Jewish Israeli became the demonized object of the new antisemitism. And in recent years, the antisemitism that was directed towards Israel has circled back to target Jews wherever they are. At the same time, we witnessed a “competition” for the role of the “whole-burnt offering” of the “Holocaust.” Europeans, in urgent need of atonement following the extreme moral collapse during the Shoah, have seized on that term as a kind of solace to their guilt.4

As memory takes shape in the present, it necessarily serves the changing interests of the state and of different groups in society. As Saul Friedländer observes, this shifts the nature of the traumatic memory from “a negative and incomprehensible event to a positive and empowering principle of action for the community.”5 The collective shaping of the memory of the Holocaust, which began immediately after the war ended, was harnessed to the changing ideological needs of the society that shaped it in specific times and places. This was true, also, of every state involved in the Holocaust, starting with those where the horrors took place and ending with the current obsession with Holocaust denial proffered as a national myth by Iran’s leaders.

The Passover model of transmitting the memory of the exodus from Egypt presents itself as a promising form for transmitting the memory of the Shoah

Israeli society, too, has harnessed the memory of the Holocaust to its needs. At the memorial gatherings, starting with those held in the displaced persons camps and to this day,6 the memory is shaped according to the needs of the moment. In each sector and context—secular, Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox; in Israel or in the Diaspora; in times of war and in times of peace—the memory of the Holocaust is yoked to a different mythological structure.

Jewish-Israeli memory resounds with the model of the Shoah as a sanctified sacrifice. In the first years after the Shoah, during the heart of the struggle to establish the State of Israel, Shoah remembrance emphasized “Holocaust and heroism” (initially, Israeli society emphasized the bravery of armed ghetto fighters almost exclusively). During this period, the “Holocaust” served to tug at Christian-Western conscience, thereby eliciting political, military, and economic support for Israel. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, into many expressions of Shoah remembrance have increasingly emphasized victimhood and have thus served to justify decisions made about government policy both at home and abroad.

The rising importance of victimhood within Shoah remembrance, contributes to a deepening rift within in Israel society. It leads people to struggle over who is “more of a victim,” over who does or does not “belong.” Shoah remembrance has begun to divide Jews rather than unite them. Yet the Shoah threatened to annihilate communities from both east and west—to destroy any Jew simply because they were a Jew—including the Jewish yishuv in the Land of Israel, the Jews of the Arab world who were displaced in the Shoah’s wake, as well as Jews living in the countries of the Allied powers and in the Soviet Union. This struggle over who is “more of a victim” has catalyzed the shift of value from the victorious to the oppressed. The various borrowings of the Shoah narrative for other calamities still inform today’s identity and victimhood politics.

Remembering Slavery, Enacting the Exodus

The Jewish tradition contains another model of remembrance, however, one which contrasts strongly with customary ceremonies for transmitting the memory of national events in general, and of the Shoah in particular: the Passover seder, which preserves and transmits the memory of slavery in Egypt. As noted above, most forms of Shoah remembrance practiced today—ceremonies, marches, film screenings, lectures, listening to live testimony—render the individual a passive, nameless member of the audience. In contrast, all those dining at the table, young and old alike, take an active part in the Passover seder. In every place, in every generation, every Jew is commanded “to see themselves as if they had left Egypt.”

The slavery of Egypt and the decree that “every boy born should be cast into the Nile” carried the Jews to the brink of destruction. Yet the seder transmits the memory of Egypt not as a trauma, but as an ongoing struggle against slavery and subjugation, which have not yet been annihilated from the world. Here, evil does not become a source of fascination. The Passover seder does not attempt to reconstruct the horrors of slavery. Instead, the command to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” establishes the social laws that will govern future generations, mandating the protection of weak and marginalized members of society.

This same dynamic comes to the fore in the constant back-and-forth between the two principles of Shabbat—“remember” (zachor) and “keep” (shamor)—dialectically bound up “in a single utterance.” Every Shabbat, everyone—–the slave and the maidservant, the stranger in your gates, even the work animals—is entitled to rest free from the yoke of work as a “memory of the exodus from Egypt.”

Similarly, the Passover Seder unfolds in a continuous time of struggle: “now we are slaves.”  And the Haggadah reminds us that only “next year,” after the struggle against slavery—both social-economic and internal-existential—will we be “free.” During the Passover seder, we are commanded not only to tell of the exodus from Egypt but to leave, right now, from subjugation to redemption. This form of memory does not present or recreate a past event like the incarnation or resurrection of Christ (like the Mass which resurrects the Messiah through the symbols of bread and wine). The Passover seder neither makes evil a source of fascination nor attempts to reconstruct the horrors of slavery; the memory of the suffering is symbolized by some bitter herbs and crumbs of hametz. Nor is the seder attached to any specific location,7 but occurs in any place where a person remembers. Jewish memory does not reconstruct the past; it contemplates the past in order to act in the present. It aims not at re-presentation but at transformation.

The Passover Haggadah model of transmitting the memory of the exodus from Egypt presents itself as a promising form for transmitting the memory of the Shoah. This model would grant all the ritual’s participants a shared destiny and would shape Shoah remembrance as the rehabilitation of trauma and as a continuing obligation to repair humanity and society. This ritual would foreground not the Nazi evil but rather human struggle, even to the brink of death. It would focus not on the sanctity of victimhood but on the great revelation of the humanity of the victims, the survivors, and the righteous gentiles. This kind of Shoah memory would recall the humanity that shines out from the depths of hell, that rare flame that flickers to life under the most extreme conditions. It would create an active memory, a means of both changing the world undergoing transformation—remembrance that moves from “remember” to “keep.”

Memory and Responsibility: Designing the Yom HaShoah Hitkansut

With this in mind, in 2012 I founded a multi-disciplinary and cross-generational research group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute to examine how the memory of the Shoah has been shaped on both the collective and personal levels.8 I subsequently led another team in designing the Hitkansut Haggadah for ritually transmitting Shoah memory. I invited philosophers and historians, artists and community leaders, religious people and secular people, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews to join the writing team.9 As team leader, I brought to the process my own authorial experience, as well as my research into ritualand my work directing theater based upon forms of Jewish ritual.10 The team worked through a collaborative writing process, one that probably resembled the process the authors of the Passover Haggadah took “when they were reclining in Bnei Brak and telling of the exodus from Egypt the entire night.”

Integrating ‘the responsibility to remember’ with ‘remembering responsibly

The result was a “Haggadah” that serves a “Yom HaShoah seder” and weaves together written passages, testimonies, conversation, prayer, group song, and moments of quiet, thus integrating the diverse voices of Shoah memory into a powerful whole. When participants in the Hitkansut “bear witness,” they add their voices to those of survivors and thus transmit the memory of the Shoah from generation to generation. They show, too, that expanding the definition of the Shoah—from a threat to annihilate every Jew to a threat against any person for being different—can transcend rifts within Israeli society (including Bedouin, Druze, and Arab participants), transforming the memory of the Shoah into a force that can bridge between different generations, sectors, backgrounds, and faiths. We designed the Hitkansut Haggadah as a multivocal work with paratextual, Talmud-style pages—the words of victims and survivors, fighters and children, prayers and journal entries, from all testimonies and viewpoints, sitting next to each other on the page. This style creates a sense of invitation to the participants of the Hitkansut to choose from among these voices, or to contribute their own voice and that of other people.

In the first half of the Hitkansut, “The Responsibility to Remember,” participants take it upon themselves “to remember even if we were not there. We did not go through it, we did not experience it,” even “if we do not feel any sense of belonging.” The destruction forced upon the Jews becomes the choice of all the participants to share a common destiny. The elegy opens with the memory of vibrant life before the calamity. Then at the section “For All These Things I Weep,” we evoke the murder and destruction, and participants light candles for the dead. We then face evil, past and present, and the many modes of human resistance to evil by Jews and by Righteous Among the Nations alike. We conclude the first half by evoking the bravery of the survivors and the uprooted in rising from loss.

The second half of the Hitkansut, “Remembering Responsibly,” begins with a section called, “Remember that You Were a Slave,” and looks toward the present and the future. Breaking into pairs, participants raise the challenges that Shoah remembrance poses here and now for the individual and society, for the State of Israel and for the family of nations. Emerging from the ritual of memory, they take upon themselves the responsibility to turn the memory of the Shoah into an obligation to act. At the conclusion of the Hitkansut, like at the conclusion of the Jewish mourning rite of shiva, participants share the transition from lamentation to rising up.

Since 2017, under the auspices of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and its Ritual Department led by Rani Jaeger, Hitkansut groups have reached ever-expanding circles within Israeli society. At the time of this writing, the Hitkansut for Yom HaShoah—in which thousands of participants in Israel, North America, and around the world take part—is transforming the memory of the Shoah in the past into an obligation to the present and a hope for the future.

By integrating “the responsibility to remember” with “remembering responsibly,” we can join the struggle—in the here and now—against present-day incarnations of fascism and evil. In moments of personal or public distress, remembering the Shoah can offer a compass that guides and empowers us instead toward human dignity.


[1] From Appelfeld’s talk with the members of the research group, Transmitted Memory and Fiction, led by Govrin at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, April 20, 2012; printed in But There Was Love: Shaping the Memory of the Shoah, eds. M. Govrin, D. Feribach-Hefetz, E. BenZaken, Carmel, 2021, pp. 25-26.

[2] For a fuller account, see Michal Govrin, “Martyrs or Survivors? Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War,” Partisan Review, 2003/2.

[3] Cited in Shaul Esh, Studies in the Holocaust and Contemporary Jewry, Center for Contemporary Jewry, Yad Vashem/ Leo Baeck Institute (Jerusalem, 1973) [Hebrew]. I am grateful to Ron Margolin for the reference.

[4] See, for example, the repeated remarks of Polish President Andrzej Duda in 2018 about the Polish victims and Jewish “wrongdoers.”

[5] Saul Friedländer, “Some Reflections on Transmitting the Memory of the Shoah,” Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, October 10, 2013.

[6] Lior Chen, Preparatory Study for the Memory-Shaping Team, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, 2014.

[7] In contrast to Shoah remembrance sites in extermination camps, the remembrance of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom does not take place in the Egyptian cities of Pithom and Ramses.

[8] See the numerous contributions including by Saul Friedländer, Aharon Appelfeld, and Otto Dov Kulka  in  But There Was Love: Shaping the Memory of the Shoah, Carmel, 2021 (Hebrew).

[9] This group included Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the founder of Tzion; Rani Jaeger, founder of Beit Tefilah Israeli and one of the creators of the “Havdalah” ritual; comparative religion scholar Ron Margolin; historian Mali Eisenberg; Yiddish artist Mendy Cahana; Rabbi Aharon Stern; the anthropologist Lior Chen; and group facilitator Miriam Ben David. We also received input and advice from Israeli poet Shva Salhoov, curator Yehudit Kol-Inbar, multidisciplinary artist Etty BenZaken, and composer Eitan Steinberg.

[10] See: Govrin, M: Jewish Ritual as a Genre of Sacred Theater, Conservatice Judaism, Vol.36(3) Spring 1983