As an academic, my research is concerned with the questions of representation associated with the Holocaust and its aftermath. To do so, I employ the term mythology in the Barthesian sense of ‘a language in which other things are spoken.’ In other words, seeing the representation of the Holocaust as more and more a prism through which other stories and concerns are addressed. Speaking of the Holocaust in Israel is to engage with the foundation of the state; in Britain, the Holocaust and World War II are important signifiers in an ongoing search for a post-imperial role between the United States and Europe; in Poland, the difficulty and controversy in talking about the Holocaust illustrate the ongoing search for an articulation of Polish wartime history that reconciles the facts with the sensibilities of those involved. In all three cases, the Holocaust is a major component of the search for a ‘usable’ past. As Robert Eaglestone observed in The Holocaust and the Postmodern (Oxford 2004) the Holocaust is ‘something wider, more significant, and, precisely because it is so all-pervasive, very much harder to pin down: [part of] a sense of “who we are” and “how the world is for us”’
But focusing exclusively on this sense of the Holocaust’s historical importance and cultural centrality – Holocaust Memorial Day is the only pan-European memorial day, for example – is to (potentially) miss an important truth. In a short and trenchant analysis of Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial (Duxford 2001), Eaglestone interrupts his characteristic eloquence to remind us that ‘writing and reading about the Holocaust is, and ought to be, distressing.’ He develops a comparison to bring home to the reader what we are talking about – mass murder – and its victims and perpetrators, reminding the reader of accounts of killings in which uniforms were described as ‘saturated with blood’.
So, compare: think about getting blood on your clothes from a nosebleed: think how much, much more blood – the blood of the victims – would ‘saturate with blood’ a thick military uniform. On one day. And the killings, of all sorts, lasted years. (p. 29)
Holocaust Memorial Day serves for me a similar purpose to Eaglestone’s comparison – which he immediately concedes is ‘not even really a comparison.’ It reminds me that fundamentally in researching and teaching about the Holocaust we are remembering the dead and asking that such things never happen again – even if the latter half of the twentieth century and opening decade of the twenty-first suggest that this lesson has been only imperfectly heard and hardly learnt at all. The knowledge that seeing this as a failure is in itself a kind of progress is a hollow sort of satisfaction, though it is better than none at all.
I use ‘mythology’ for a variety of reasons, some of which are set out above. In addition, though, it attracted me because it addressed the kind of incomprehension and sadness I feel when I engage with testimony or images that move or disturb me. To term the Holocaust a modern mythology allows me to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in trying to explain that which will not be explained, and removing any possibility that it might be explained away. Myths are not there to be explained, but instead to be heard: as an early collection of Holocaust literature put it, ‘A whirlwind cannot be taught, it must be experienced.’ And we are left with the knowledge that since we have not (for the most part, thank goodness) experienced it all we can do is try to teach it.
But there are different kinds of teaching. The following excerpt from an eyewitness account of a mass killing in Ukraine in 1942 has made me wonder – still makes me wonder – how we face the apocalypse and if there is a meaning to be found.
The father held the ten-year-old boy by the hand speaking softly to him. The boy was struggling to hold back his tears. The father pointed a finger at the sky and seemed to be explaining something to him.
More than once, while teaching groups of first-year undergraduates with this and other documents, students began to cry and apologised. It is important to remember that in the face of such things tears need no apology: we should be upset, we should cry, we should mourn. And then we should make sure that we do what we can to make the world better. God willing.