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Valentina Pisanty in EuropeNow

Alexis Herr

The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right (CPL Editions 2020) by Valentina Pisanty addresses the dramatic rise in racism and intolerance among countries where memory of the Holocaust is pursued with the greatest vigor and, in some cases, where Holocaust denial is a criminal offense. Pisanty challenges the foundational myth of Holocaust memorialization and education that assumes “the memory of the Shoah is a formidable antidote to racism and intolerance.”[1]To do so, she deftly scrutinizes the desire to remember, the shape that memory takes, and the common flaws of Holocaust remembrance that weaken its impact. The questions she raises in the process pierce the heart of a well-established memorial culture and push educators, including myself, to reevaluate Holocaust memory and education

The desire to remember the Holocaust, or what Pisanty calls the “duty of memory,” has resulted in herculean efforts to commemorate and document the genocide. And yet, despite seventy-six years of testimony, education, critically acclaimed documentaries and films, expensive museums, countless books, numerous laws against denial, international days of Holocaust remembrance, and so much more, genocide, xenophobia, and racism not only remain, but are finding new purchase and appeal worldwide. If the present state of affairs tells us anything, “never forget” does not inherently mean “never again.” Thus, Pisanty begins her study by posing an essential question about the well-intentioned “mantras” that promote Holocaust memory as a bulwark to future atrocity: “Is it really sufficient to remember past events to guard against the eventuality that something similar might happen again?”[2]

This question, like many others she raises throughout this book, resonates with me as a genocide educator and American in 2021. Let us pause to consider her question.  Holocaust education has never been more widely available than it is at present in the US. And yet, just like Poland, France, Ukraine, Italy, the UK, and so many other nations, the US has incubated xenophobic and racist movements that threaten to disrupt the progress we have made against authoritarianism, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism since World War II.[3] Clearly, awareness of the Holocaust is not enough to silence discriminatory violence. Others before her have come to the same conclusion, but her critique of memory culture as partly responsible for the rise of the alt-right breaks new ground.

Holocaust memory is riddled with contradictions that ultimately degrade the efficacy and the power that Holocaust knowledge should ideally produce. On the one hand, the Holocaust is presented as a history with universal relevancy. In short, the Holocaust is more than a history about Jewish victimization, it is a warning of humanity’s capacity for wrongdoing.  On the other hand, the event has become engraved in popular memory as unique and exceptional―a metric that a “hypothetical global community accesses to define the essential conditions of its existence.”[4] But how can something exceptional also be universal? While Pisanty does not answer why or how this incongruency detracts from “never again,” her point is still worthy of our consideration: Why do we find it so hard to admit that something has gone awry?”[5] This question, it seems, is posed to those whom Pisanty identifies as “the Guardians of Memory—the people, associations or institutions appointed to conduct appropriate commemorative practices.”[6] While the intention of the guardians of memory is noble—to use the Holocaust to “speak to the heart of Everyman…[and insist] heavily on the need to identify with other’s experiences”—Pisanty suggests that more attention must be paid to realizing the rhetorical errors in the process.[7] This book is therefore not written for students and instead addressed to the educators and professional disseminators of Holocaust memory.

But how do we make memory of the Holocaust yield universal relevance without detracting from its uniqueness? While Pisanty falls short of answering this question, she does help track how we reached this impasse of exceptionality and universality. According to Pisanty, historically, the guardians of memory have undermined the uniqueness of the Holocaust by trying to make it more relatable to those striving to learn about it. This approach is problematic and has resulted in an abuse and overreliance on educating through emotion versus critical thinking. Pedagogically, the problem is that this approach assumes that forming some type of connection to tragedy is enough to prevent future acts of violence. And ultimately, this requires taking shortcuts in Holocaust education.

As a Holocaust historian and educator, and thus a guardian of memory, I often utilize the “truth value” of testimony. [8] I have had survivors speak in my class and shown testimony to students that I know contain factual errors—which is not surprising given the passage of time, challenge of navigating trauma, and so much more—because I value the emotional connection forged between victim and student. I reason that surely, in ten years, my student will not remember years or dates, but hearing from a survivor is unforgettable. Pisanty’s work is asking me and others in my position to reevaluate what such remembrance actually achieves. Emotion is a powerful tool, but it is a shortcut that creates a false sense of understanding. How can learners who have not experienced genocide think that they can relate to and therefore understand a victim? The reality is they cannot and suggesting otherwise unnecessarily simplifies that which is complex. Surely survivors build connections to the past, but ultimately, what does that connection do to prevent genocide? Prevention requires that we confront the complexity of genocide, not avoid it.  And herein lies the real power of Pisanty’s book. By exposing the cracks in the foundation of memory culture and performance, she challenges long held assumptions about Holocaust education. In so doing, she disrupts what over the years has taken on an allure of “self-evident truth”―that knowledge or memory of an event is enough.[9]

According to Pisanty, Holocaust films are also guilty of dulling the complicated reality of the Holocaust. While their proliferation surely speaks to the feeling among their creators that humanity has a “duty of memory,” she contends that the film industry has not given enough thought to the function of that memory. Aside from Son of Saul, Pisanty argues that the last decade of Holocaust films “raise no ethical or aesthetic questions of any import about the present.”[10] As she sees it, the problem lies in the desire to treat the Holocaust as if it is relatable and therefore understandable. In reality, the pain and suffering that victims and survivors experienced is beyond the viewer’s comprehension. But instead of engaging with this fact, the Holocaust is mechanically presented, and images of bodies and gas chambers are seared into the cultural zeitgeist without us questioning why we have a duty to know about it and how it is relevant to our present and future.

For many young learners of the Holocaust today, that connection has been lost. To make this point, Pisanty highlights young visitors’ trivialization of Holocaust memory at concentration camp memorials where selfie-culture flourishes. She observes that despite how uncouth such actions are, it “would be reductive to feel scandalized by such disrespectful photos.” Why? Because ultimately, those snapping selfies at former death camps “simply do not know or do not care why they are making that pilgrimage.”[11] Rather, she views such behavior as endemic of a memorial process that has lost its thread of connection between past and present. For Pisanty, it showcases “a form of detachment and emotional anesthesia divorced from the specific content to which it refers.”[12] Her point is that the real responsibility for such actions lies not with the youth snapping and posting photos, but with the guardians of memory who have failed to make the Holocaust relevant to millennials.

I can surely attest to such infuriating behavior in my university classroom. I routinely ask my students to put away all screens when a survivor speaks, or risk losing my mind when phones light up as a survivor is talking about life in a ghetto. But I have a different theory as to why students act this way. Regardless of the why, learning about the Holocaust and genocide remains incredibly uncomfortable. Surely, selfies and the like are also indicative of a younger generation that turns to readily-available distraction to cope with challenge. Although Pisanty assumes that selfies at deathcamps demonstrate unintended aversion, I think it may be the exact opposite. For example, students in my classes on comparative genocide consistently express outrage when they learn that genocide is not an event relegated to the past and that, in fact, it ravages populations in their own lifetime. The genocides of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Uighurs in China, among other human rights violations and atrocities, receive headline attention, but many students (and adults, for that matter) choose to avert their gaze or avoid that reality. Much like Pisanty, I too wonder why students of the Holocaust divorce the past from the present. If Holocaust education is to be relevant to the present this is something we must overcome.

The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right is an important critique of Holocaust memory culture and its shortcomings. While reading the intelligent questions Pisanty raised, I kept thinking of Holocaust philosopher John K. Roth’s reflection on a lifetime of Holocaust study. “Whenever I think I understand the Holocaust,” Roth explains, “whenever someone tells me that catastrophe has been explained, I should think again—and again.”[13] Pisanty pushes her readers, the so-called “Guardians of Memory,” to reexamine the aims of Holocaust memory and the methods used to achieve them. The Holocaust is not the last genocide we will be compelled to remember, so there is a lesson here beyond the scope of World War II.

EUROPE NOW https://www.europenowjournal.org/2021/04/01/guardians-of-memory-and-the-return-of-the-xenophobic-right/

Alexis Herr is a Lecturer at University of San Francisco. She researches and teaches on comparative genocide studies. 

Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right
By Valentina Pisanty, translated by Alastair McEwen
Publisher: CPL Editions
Paperback / 343 pages / 2020
ISBN: 9781941046326

References:

[1] Valentina Pisanty, The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right, translated by Alastair McEwan (New York: CPL Editions, 2020) 37.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] According to the FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics Act Report, hate crimes in the US have reach historic highs. Of the 7,103 single-bias incidents involving 8,5552 victims, 57.6 percent were targeted because of the offenders’ race/ethnicity/ancestry and 20.1 percent were targeted because of the victim’s religion.  FBI, “2019 Hate Crime Statistics,” published November 16, 2020, https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2019/resource-pages/hate-crime-summary.

[4] Pisanty, Guardians of Memory, 42.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] Ibid., 34-35.

[10] Ibid., 193.

[11] Ibid., 204.

[12] Ibid., 206.

[13] John K. Roth. Sources of Holocaust Insight (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2020) 119.

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