“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”-George Orwell
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) and it made me think about the importance of remembering and of preserving the testimony of witnesses.
I remember talking to an acquaintance about my application to the Human Rights Watch to serve in Myanmar and record the testimony of the few who escaped the Rohingya genocide (I didn’t get it, but that’s not the point) and he asked me why would I want to do that? Wouldn’t I want to do something more proactive and useful? I brought up the fact that the information could be used by government agencies to prosecute Myanmar and would serve as evidence that, yes, a genocide is occurring-which was rather important since many Americans don’t know where Myanmar is or who the Rohingya are. He shrugged that off as well, claiming that recording details of mass atrocities only made people numb and didn’t serve any purpose.
His logic angered me, of course, but also made me realize that I had never questioned the need for recorded testimony. In my mind, it was an established fact that recording what had happened is vital, not only for the present, but for the past and the future.
I think I can trace it to an Eisenhower quote I read at the Holocaust Museum in DC: I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda. It gave me the sense that the truth, if preserved, would break free of whatever lies, half-lies, and soundbites we trade on a regular basis. That the act of recording was the only true weapon against those who have an interest in forgetting or justifying. This thought has weighed on me more than usual considering today’s climate and I have been thinking about those who lived under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. How could they keep a grasp on the truth, when it was a fragile as glass? I have been thinking about Elie Wiesel’s book Night and Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and wonder how anyone could willing force themselves to write about what they saw and went through and why. Does it matter or is that something we tell ourselves because it’s the only way we can live with genocides? Does the act of recording allow us, in a demented way, to justify having either lived through them, lived while they occurred, or live in a world in which they have become history?
There is power behind recording. I always feel a punch to the gut whenever I read the first half of Stanislaw Ulam’s memoir Adventures of a Mathematician because in the first few chapters he talks about his friends in Poland and how they died during WWII. Reading one of Czeslaw Milosz’ poems or his book the Captive Mind can also leave deep cuts because he ensures we will know the names of those who were lost to the camps and the war. But what does that sting accomplish? And I think of other genocides, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide and the book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and I wonder what books will be written about Syria and Myanmar and what will the future think.
There is a book, I haven’t read yet, called In Praise of Forgetting by David Rieff, which argues that sometimes it is best to forget historical wrongs in order to find peace. Although I have not yet read the book, the idea angers me. Forgetting can prevent communal feuds but forgetting can also blind us to the truth about ourselves, our countries, and our ideologies. Additionally, it is easy for someone who has lost nothing to tell someone who has lost everything to forget so that there may be peace. What use is peace when it is built on the blood of the forgotten? If the dead and atrocities are blotted out, did they never occur? This is something, as an American, I think I am very sensitive to because we have tried very hard to forget our genocides for ‘peace’. We blot out the true history of the Native Americans and the true history of the African slaves and their adjustment into African-Americans because it is uncomfortable and would only open old wounds. We fought a civil war and the civil rights movement to make amendments. Surely, to bring up old skeletons now when the world is so uncertain, and our government is so fragile would be unpatriotic, maybe even treasonous. And peace for who? Even if, using Rieff’s arguments, America agrees as a country to forget all about the Native American genocide (the Native Americans would have to agree to this too for it to work), who benefits the most from that peace? The Native Americans or the white colonists who now own the land? Does it erase the lives lost? Does it make America less of a hypocrite? How long could a peace like that last?
Finally, if we forget, what happens when the warning signs reappear? Is Syria the way it is because that country refused to forget its torturous past or because the U.N. and the U.S. refused to remember Rwanda and Bosnia?
Russia is a good example of the dangers of forgetting or refusing to acknowledge the survivor’s testimony. There are people (not just Russians, people from all over the world) who argue that Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine and the implementation of the Gulags was necessary as it assured that Russia would be in a position to defeat Hitler during WWII.
Stalin needed to mass murder his own people in order to resist the imminent invasion from Germany.
Never mind that the Holodomor occurred from 1932-1933.
Never mind that the first Gulag camp was built in the 1930s
Never mind that the worst way to prevent for an invasion is to starve anywhere from 2.4 million to 12 million of your own citizens (not to mention shooting the majority of your army officers).
That’s not including the starvation of 100,000 Tatars, Russians, and Ukrainians in 1921, the thousands deported during the collectivization in 1928-1929 and roughly 50% of the Crimean Tatars that were killed or deported between 1917-1933. Let’s not forget the roughly 240,000 Tatars who were killed or deported to Uzbekistan in 1944. And let’s add that ever since Crimea was stolen by the Russians in 2014, Putin has passed increasingly repressive measures against the Tatars who currently live there-history repeating itself and no one noticing because no one talks about the Soviet’s attempts to exterminate them. I didn’t know about the deportation and murder of the Tatars until I researched Muslims in Russia one rainy day.
Putin can claim with a serious face that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union because their crimes are not remembered or discussed the way the crimes of Nazi Germany, of Rwanda, or Bosnia. Not only does Putin, in particular, refuse to remember the history of the Soviet Union, he also demands that the rest of the world remember it the way he prefers. He threatens Poland if they tear down statues dedicated to Soviet invaders and oppressors and belittles Kazakhstan, claiming it wasn’t a country until the Soviet Union made it a country.
This is why we should remember. To combat these attempts to dominate and rewrite history. To ensure that a nation that rests on a bloody foundation is never comfortable until coming to terms with its past. To ensure that those who bleed are not forced to be grateful for the chance to sacrifice and so their pain is not turned into a mockery.
When thinking about remembrance and truth I remember this quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “And, above all, we do not allow the dead to rise up against us.”
We need to record the truth anyway we can in order to help the dead destroy their murderers.