The dilemma &mdash how to remember Shoah, yet move on

berlin | At the end of last week’s international conference on anti-Semitism, Solomon Passy, Bulgaria’s foreign minister, presented the yellow star his grandfather had worn during World War II to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

It was a gesture weighted with symbolism and memory.

Passy had chaired the high-level, two-day conference, organized by the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Fischer had been its host.

“My grandfather used to say that the time will come when we and the Germans will be allies again,” Passy told Fischer. “My grandfather used to say: ‘Then we shall return the yellow star to the Germans.’

“I am happy that now I can fulfill the legacy of my grandfather and return the yellow star which he wore,” he continued. “Thank you, Joschka.”

Both men, born after the Holocaust and brought up on opposing sides of Cold War Europe, blinked back tears.

That ceremony took place Thursday, April 29, just two days before the European Union expanded to embrace 10 new members — Malta and Cyprus, plus eight former communist states whose Jewish communities were largely wiped out in the Shoah: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Passy’s gesture, in the capital of the nation whose one-time Nazi leaders decreed the annihilation of European Jewry, demonstrated how much Europe has changed since the end of World War II.

It also demonstrated how powerfully, 60 years later, the Holocaust and its legacy still frame European identity and self-awareness.

Today, as direct memory fades and the Shoah recedes into history, one of the challenges facing both Jews and non-Jews is how to draw meaning from the past without getting trapped in empty rituals.

“Most of us, of course, do not have memories of the Shoah nor, often, sufficient means for apprehending that event,” Eva Hoffman, the Polish-born child of Holocaust survivors, wrote in an intensely personal new book on the legacy of the Shoah, “After Such Knowledge.”

“What meanings does the Holocaust hold for us today — and how are we going to pass on those meanings to subsequent generations?” she asked.

In effect, the challenge is how to build on history without becoming a prisoner of it.

For Jews, attempting to move on can trigger a range of emotions, including guilt, relief and lingering reluctance.

“For a lot of people it’s not so much a problem to move forward, but many don’t realize that you can — or should,” said Slavka, a woman in her mid-20s who works for the Auschwitz Jewish Center, a study, memorial and culture center based near the former Nazi death camp.

“For young Jews, particularly those from Israel and America, the Holocaust is something that is banged into their head,” she said. “Holocaust education can create defensiveness and hostility in them. I don’t think they realize until it is pointed out to them that it is possible to move forward or see it in a different context.”

In North America, the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and museums in recent years has prompted some commentators to compare Holocaust remembrance to a quasi-religious experience.

In that context, Holocaust monuments can testify that we have paid our debt to the past, serving almost as shrines, said Shai Franklin, director of governmental relations for the U.S. Jewish advocacy organization NCSJ, which defends the rights of Jews from the former Soviet Union and other land. But by now, he added, “it’s up to us to be the survivors and to make ourselves into a real, living memorial. Never again should we misread what our duty is, in our own, living, generation” and in the future.

In Europe, the situation is somewhat different — and so is the challenge. Europe is where the Holocaust took place. It’s also where, as the conference declaration put it, “anti-Semitism, following its most devastating manifestation during the Holocaust, has assumed new forms and expressions which, along with other forms of intolerance, pose a threat to democracy, the values of civilization and, therefore, to overall security.”

Indeed, the very landscape can bear eloquent witness to the destruction: The modern-looking Jewish community center in Berlin, for example, is built on the site of a grand synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938. Today’s building incorporates surviving architectural elements from the destroyed synagogue.

In many countries, thousands of Jewish cemeteries lie abandoned and hundreds of derelict synagogues stand scattered, few of them used as houses of worship.

Until fairly recently, however, the Holocaust and its commemoration were regarded as a Jewish affair, detached from the general flow of European national history and national memory.

In Eastern Europe, communist ideology made the extermination of the Jews a footnote to overall suffering in World War II.

Surviving Jews in many countries kept low profiles after the war, particularly in communist states, where Jewish life after the Shoah was forcefully suppressed.

Only in the past 10 to 15 years have these attitudes begun to change, often slowly and at times painfully.