Memory of dead more important than blood money

The Holocaust claims conference that opened this week in Washington focused on recouping money and assets plundered from European Jews.

There is absolutely no doubt that every dime should be recovered.

But as in everything, there is no absolute good. Every step forward always contains the possibility of unforeseen problems. The current story is no different.

In the process of focusing so mightily on money, we must also be vigilant about the danger that this preoccupation might take precedence over, perhaps even eclipse, what must always remain the predominant memory — the killing of the 6 million.

Shoah memory has gone through several stages of bereavement, which follow the general lines of the Jewish tradition of mourning.

Survivors, and for that matter the larger Jewish community, were silent for the first 20 years after the Holocaust. Many of the rabbis teaching at my high school yeshiva in the late '50s and early '60s were survivors, for example. Yet never once did I hear any mention of the Shoah.

In those days, Shoah memory lay dormant for many reasons.

Survivors were still shell-shocked from experiencing the horror of horrors. So preoccupied were they with picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on, so overwhelming was the task facing them, that there was little energy left for anything else.

Moreover, for many survivors, what they had endured was so humiliating that they were unable to speak about their experiences. And, it must also be said, that many of us were unwilling at the time, for a vast array of reasons, to listen to their stories.

Those years resembled a protracted observance of the Jewish mourning period of aninut — that period of time between death and burial in which the bereaved are considered to be so traumatized that Jewish law exempts them from the performance of any of the commandments.

It took 20 years, until after the 1967 Six-Day War, for the community of Israel to begin a collective shivah — the seven-day period of reflection during which the bereaved begin to take stock of the memory of the departed and those who come to comfort them attend to their tales.

It was at this time that Holocaust studies began to evolve and find legitimacy in the culture at large. So powerful was Shoah memory then, that for many Jews, Judaism became — and unfortunately for some still remains — a branch of the Holocaust, rather than the Holocaust being subsumed within Judaism.

This process of memory reached its crescendo in 1978 when the U.S. government announced a plan to support the building of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on federal land. Shoah memory was "in." The past was finally being remembered in a profound and detailed way.

By the mid-1980s, the Jewish community in America began to face a new phenomenon — Holocaust revisionism.

While that process had started years earlier, it had been marginal. During the 1980s, however, revisionism burst into the public eye.

President Ronald Reagan was an unwitting participant when he made the terrible mistake of going to Bitburg, thereby declaring a moral equivalency between the Waffen SS and the Holocaust's victims. Pope John Paul II in 1987 embraced President Kurt Waldheim of Austria, an unrepentant Nazi, calling him a "prince of peace." The convent at Auschwitz was another form of revisionism, seen by some as an attempt to Christianize the Shoah. In addition, Holocaust deniers shamelessly escalated the dissemination of their lies and calumnies.

Fifty years after the Shoah, the period of building "short-term memory" has concluded.

Earlier this decade, anniversary ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of liberation took place. Survivors viewed such events as an indication that the world had at last acknowledged their suffering. But others — like the governments and many civilians in Germany, Poland and Austria — hoped that the ceremonies would serve as a last chapter in the memory process, a way to finally be rid of the memory of the Shoah that tainted them so profoundly.

Today we are moving from short-term memory to long-term memory

How the Shoah will be remembered into the future very much depends on how we treat this transition period, a period that sets the tone for future memory, casting its shadow forward.

And herein lies my concern. As in the normal grieving process, during which estates have to be put in order and the business of the dead must be concluded, today the Jewish community has focused upon the details of recovering assets. No doubt, this process will take decades.

What price will this extract from Shoah memory? What will be the ramifications as Jews and Jewish organizations begin to quarrel over unclaimed funds? What will happen to the larger percentage of survivors who didn't lose money but claim that they suffered no less, and feel that they are being ignored?

And, indeed, what will happen to Shoah memory if it's discovered that not only did non-Jews steal but that some Jews also stole money from other Jews, illegally removing Jewish funds from bank accounts.

We are the first to applaud the courage of those who have dedicated themselves to winning financial restitution for Holocaust survivors.

But we are deeply concerned that as this effort continues, the sacred essence of Holocaust memory may be compromised.

As we move into the stage of long-term memory, the key challenge is to preserve the truth about the Holocaust even as we relentlessly pursue the just return of funds.

If we do not meet this challenge, there is real danger that the Holocaust will be remembered for stolen money rather than stolen souls.