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Defining the Holocaust Survivor: Memory Alone is Too Easily Forgotten

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 In the Holocaust, six million Jews faced systematic mass extermination at the hands of the Nazi regime. In the Armenian Genocide, more than one million ethnic Armenians suffered mass expulsion by the Ottoman government. African Americans remained enslaved at the hands of cruel slave masters and commodified for economic gain for hundreds of years. Native Americans suffered deaths of influential cultural leaders and hundreds of tribe members in forced relocation and the stripping of their ancestral lands. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were executed by the Serbs in the Bosnian Genocide, and the Cambodian genocide saw approximately two million people, a quarter of the population, brutally murdered.

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Whether Jew or Armenian, African American or American Indian, Bosnian or Cambodian, the individualistic nature of a victim’s response to trauma creates an impossibility in fully understanding a victim’s experience. From one historical perspective, it is argued that all victims of Nazism should be considered Holocaust survivors. From another historical standpoint, a Holocaust survivor is solely and exclusively an identity belonging to the Jews . It is a complex task to attempt to classify the trauma of victims when their experiences can never be fully understood by another. Thus, the question of who a Holocaust survivor is remains a topic of debate contingent upon context. Every narrative is different, no story the same as another. Therefore, through the variance in responses to trauma and the singularity of personal experiences, the equivocation of genocide and the Holocaust results in controversy over exactly who constitutes as a Holocaust survivor.

Initially, the lines were blurred when it came to define the Holocaust versus genocide. Edward T. Linenthal’s piece, Preserving Memory demonstrates the confliction in defining even the Holocaust itself in the construction of a Holocaust memorial. He describes how the concept of “genocide” had first been developed to “describe the murder of the Jews,” and that only after the emergence of this term could “other instances of genocide become ‘real’ through recognition” . This would have made the Armenian genocide “a precursor and perhaps even a model for the Holocaust”. The Holocaust was undoubtedly an event that directly victimized the Jews, but what was to say about other “genocides” that occurred prior, during, or after the Holocaust? Was it fair that these events were disregarded in the creation of a memorial? Disputes surrounding inclusion of other groups in the memorial and the idea of competitive suffering emerged from these questions. The notion that the Armenian genocide related to the Holocaust was dismissed by Jewish survivors who were ambivalent to “any formal linkage between that genocidal event and the Holocaust”. On the other hand, there were concerns that excluding certain groups from the memorial would “undermine the integrity of the exhibition” and would be a “pedagogical mistake”. Consequently, the inability to come to terms with a universal definition of the Holocaust resulted in the ambiguity in defining the “Holocaust survivor”.

In Michael Berenbaum’s report presented to the commission, he “insisted on the Jewish core of the Holocaust,” but also stated that though the event was “essentially Jewish, its interpretation [was] universal”. Berenbaum poses a contradiction in his own statement. Though he states that the Holocaust is fundamentally a Jewish suffering, he simultaneously leaves the designation for who a Holocaust survivor is open for anyone to interpret. Essentially, he says that whilst the Jews are the primary victims, really any group can also be defined as Holocaust survivors if so interpreted. In contrast, Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel believed that “any comparison of event or linkage to any other victim group could be…if not the murder of memory, at least its dilution” . This inability to agreeingly distinguish between victim groups of genocide and the Holocaust resultingly made it incredibly difficult to place a definition on the “Holocaust survivor”.

Furthermore, the act of remembrance and the variable nature of memory itself commodified the Holocaust story, obscuring the Holocaust survivor identity. To Wiesel, “the Holocaust could never be understood but, for the sake of humankind, had to be remembered” , but even memory could be manipulated and misused. Hollywood film trivialized the Holocaust memory. For example, the film version of Anne Frank’s diary was heavily romanticized, painted as a tragic love story. Plays and movies did not hold Nazis responsible in their portrayals. Even films that did include Nazis were never able to represent the Jewish plight with integrity, like the episode Death’s Head Revisited of the Twilight Zone, which made the Jews out to be an otherworldly nightmare who drove a former S.S. officer insane, or even Judgment at Nuremberg, which focused more on the “honorable Americans” bringing justice than true remembrance of the Jewish suffering .

Even years later, NBC’s mini series titled The Holocaust was critiqued as “an example of the obscene trivialization of the Holocaust in popular culture” . Cynthia Ozick was the biggest critic regarding Anne Frank’s diary, stating that the diary had been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitchified by dramatists, directors, and especially by the American public”. The diary had now transformed into “a triumphant story of Everyperson’s triumphant spirit soaring over a faceless evil”, rather than Anne Frank’s personal story of real struggle and betrayal. All this culminated towards a question of “who owns the memory?, and how ownership could even be applied to something so deeply rooted in experience like memory. This assertion of “ownership” was what lead to the commodification of the Holocaust memory. NBC’s mini series took advantage of its 120 million audience viewership by inserting frequent and tasteless ads for monetary incentive; for example, immediately after “Adolf Eichmann complained that the stench of burning bodies made it impossible for him to enjoy his dinner…a character in a Lysol commercial informed a housewife that she had odors in her kitchen” . Not only was the Holocaust memory being taken advantage of for capital, but it was done so in an incredibly offensive and insensitive way, with no regard to survivors. In Art Spiegelman’s graphic narrative, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, Art expresses the guilt he feels regarding the success of his novel and how in some twisted way, he has profited from his father’s story of suffering . Sherman Alexie’s poem, Dachau mentions how “only a dozen visitors walked through the camp because we were months away from tourist season”. Memory is reduced to a figure of display, a spectacle of curiosity—no longer a sobering depiction of humanity’s deepest failure. In this sense, the Holocaust memory no longer belonged to the Jews; its memory was now in the hands of third-party powers free to manipulate and use the memory for their own personal agendas. Evidently, this meant that the Holocaust memory could be politicized, and it was. For example, “the motivation to build a Holocaust memorial was linked with a clear message of the administration’s support for the State of Israel” (Linenthal 19). Remembrance became a political tool. The memory of the Holocaust was constantly being transformed and manipulated; as a result, the task of concretely defining a Holocaust survivor became increasingly complicated.

Moreover, the personal experience of an individual is so singular and unique that the definition of a Holocaust survivor becomes contextually reliant. Wiesel describes how the Holocaust is “incapable of being represented except through survivor testimony” . Linenthal expresses the difficulty in excluding certain groups from Holocaust survivorship, because those groups “see in the Holocaust a sensitive metaphor to their own experience”. It is impossible and unjust to undermine another’s suffering because experience cannot be replicated or understood even through the sharing of memory. Throughout Spiegelman’s narrative, Art is never able to understand the ways of his father. Whether it be in his father’s frugality in counting matches or never wanting to waste a single crumb of food, Art always sees his father as delusional and unreasonable despite knowing about everything his father experienced during the Holocaust. Similarly, Alexie’s sentiments about the relation of American Indian suffering to the Holocaust cannot be dismissed. He suggests that American Indians also have suffered in a way that Jews have suffered in the Holocaust. He says that “We too could stack the shoes of our dead and fill a city to its thirteenth floor…We are the sons and daughters of the walking dead. We have lost everyone…We stand over mass graves” (Alexie 4). While Native Americans may not historically be considered “Holocaust survivors”, they have gone through a “Holocaust” of their own and from their personal perspectives could consider themselves as “Holocaust survivors”. No one can understand the American Indian experience except for American Indians themselves, so when it comes to defining who a Holocaust survivor is, experience presents a complex variable due to the lack of understanding outside of each cultural group.

Adding on, the response to trauma differs in every individual. Spiegelman’s memoir displays the variation in responses to trauma. The reader sees the extremity and anxiousness in Vladek’s behavior. Even at the end of his life, Vladek is still haunted by the past. Art’s mother Anja, another survivor, cannot bear to live any longer and commits suicide. Mala, Art’s stepmother, adopts a carefreeness and lack of worry in the “little things” in her life; she simply wants to enjoy her life in Florida. Three different survivors, and three very different responses to trauma. Survivors of other genocides, Native Americans, and African Americans each also vary in the way they live with their trauma. The effects of trauma also span across generations; Art lives with the guilt that he happens to be born after the war, unlike his younger brother who died in the camps. He sees a shrink every week as a middle-aged adult, and his “father’s ghost still hangs over [him]” . He may not be a Holocaust survivor, but he indirectly experiences the trauma of the Holocaust through his father’s memory. In Dachau, Alexie expresses that his people have experienced the same level of trauma as the Jews. They must ask themselves the same questions that Jews do after survival. Alexie goes through the sequence of “If I were Jewish, [question]…I am Spokane. I…”, asking, “how would I mourn the dead?”, “how would I remember the past?”, “how would I fall in love?” “how would I tell the stories?”, “how would I sleep at night?” . Through this, Alexie suggests that in a way, trauma is universal; the questions asked in reflection of indescribable pain and loss are the same. It is the responses that are unique. But this uniqueness in response does not dictate that the suffering felt by one is any less than another—all survivors have their own internal mountains to climb to recovery.

Ultimately, there exists no definition as to who constitutes as a Holocaust survivor due to the ambiguity surrounding the distinctions between the Holocaust and genocide and through the singularity of trauma response and experience. It is impossible to begin to understand the experience of any survivor; the “Holocaust survivor” remains a subject of debate reliant on such contextual experience. And so the Holocaust memory endures, despite commodification and trivialization of its remembrance. But memory alone cannot prevent the repeating of the past. As Alexie foretells, “I wonder which people will light fires next and which people will soon be turned to smoke” (Alexie 7). Memory alone is too easily forgotten. For survivors, remembering is all they know how to do. It is all they can do in order to try and move forward. For the rest, forgetting is easier than remembering the greatest failures in the morality of humankind.  

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