The Politics of Remembrance

With ever fewer survivors, the Holocaust is passing into history

The Politics of Remembrance
Artist’s rendering of the proposed British Holocaust memorial, slated for construction in Victoria Tower Gardens, near Parliament in London. (Adjaye Associates and Ron Arad Architects)

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When I was a kid, I knew a few grown-ups with tattoos. There was an ancient relative in Paris. There was a friend of my grandmother from Amsterdam. There was my Hebrew teacher, Mr. Wolf, who often rolled his sleeves up in the summer.

Mr. Wolf had been in Auschwitz. I knew this because my mother told me. I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask him about it, being the awkward 12-year-old that I was. And maybe that was for the best. Perhaps Mr. Wolf didn’t especially want to talk about his Holocaust experience with me or any of his young students. I’d ask him now if he showed any signs of willingness to talk. But I can’t. Mr. Wolf died of cancer not long after my bar mitzvah.

Tattooed adults were far more common for my mother when she was a kid. She used to see them everywhere: at her parents’ London office, on her summer holidays in Italy and Switzerland. Talk of the camps was so casual that the grown-ups might have been chatting about vacation spots. But no one really spoke of their experiences to her. “Nicht vor den Kindern” (not in front of the children), they would say in German. That’s how it went. No point infecting them with all that.

The cliche of Holocaust memory is that it really only became established after the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem opened the world’s eyes to the details of the horrors, informing a new generation — and reminding everybody else — of what had happened less than two decades previously. By that stage, so the cliche also goes, the various fighting nations had come to terms with their own war losses and were better able to consider the specificity of the Holocaust, while the Israeli state was more secure in its foundations and the idea of Jewish victimhood less threatening to its image.

There is much truth to all this, but, like all cliches, it is a crude, totalizing summation and misses many details. There was plenty of work being done to remember, document and contextualize the Holocaust throughout the 1950s (Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, was established in 1953), while, on the other hand, it can be argued that the business of global Holocaust memorialization took off in earnest only several decades later.

In the United Kingdom, for example — which (bar the Channel Islands) remained uninvaded — the first memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (a garden of boulders surrounded by birch trees in London’s Hyde Park) was opened in 1983. “Kindertransport — The Arrival” — a now well-known and much-loved bronze sculpture by Frank Meisler, commemorating the arrival of 10,000 children (the vast majority of them German Jews) who came to Britain from 1938 to 1940 — was unveiled at London’s Liverpool Street Station in 2006. And while the U.K.’s Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27 (marking the liberation of Auschwitz) might seem like a venerable fixture in the national calendar of solemnity, it was first held only in 2001.

In the United States, the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston was unveiled in 1995 and the Holocaust Memorial Park in Brooklyn appeared two years later. In Paris, the Memorial de la Shoah was inaugurated in 2005. In Berlin — a place that might be considered to have an especial resonance for these matters — Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” opened on May 10, 2005, four years after the famous Libeskind Building, which houses the city’s Jewish Museum, with its permanent Holocaust exhibition. Warsaw has the POLIN Museum, which was conceived in 1995, but construction only began in 2009. It eventually opened in 2013.

The 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age of Holocaust memorialization, and today Holocaust memorials are omnipresent, de rigueur. Every self-respecting righteous state, even city, seems to want one.

In the U.S., most states have at least one, and those with sizable Jewish communities, such as California, Florida, New Jersey and New York, have several. In England, outside London, Nottingham has one, as do Huddersfield and Stamford. Along with the memorials in Hyde Park and Liverpool Street Station, London has its own Jewish Museum in Camden, which puts on regular Holocaust exhibitions, as well as the Wiener Holocaust Library in Russell Square, while the Imperial War Museum in Southwark hosts an excellent permanent exhibition in the form of the Holocaust Galleries, attracting some 600,000 visitors each year.

If you want to remember the Holocaust without the taint of political spin, there’s nothing quite like talking to a survivor.

How many sites is sufficient? Not this many, according to the U.K. government, in alliance with the government-funded Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. In 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a £75 million (equivalent today to $95 million) Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre was to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens, right in front of the Houses of Parliament. It would, commented Cameron, constitute “a permanent statement of our values as a nation.”

Lord Eric Pickles — the chair of Conservative Friends of Israel and honorary vice president of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust — later echoed these sentiments, stating that the memorial’s core theme would be “British values.”

One can be forgiven for detecting a certain political spin at play here. What, after all, might those British values be? Might they be the values that helped save thousands of unaccompanied minors on the eve of World War II? Or might they be the values that, barely five years later, led British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to rebuff a plan by U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull to save up to 70,000 Jews “threatened with extermination” in Bulgaria? Might they be the values that led to the Home Office’s recent “hostile environment” policy under Home Secretary Theresa May and the ongoing Windrush scandal that has seen so many of the country’s Commonwealth citizens wrongfully detained and deported? Might they be the values behind the decision by May’s successors to send U.K. asylum seekers on planes bound for Rwanda — declared “unlawful” in June by the U.K. Court of Appeal? And might, one further wonders, there be a broader element of triumphalism to this memorial, with its grandstanding position outside the British seat of democracy — a reminder that this island nation was on the right side of history?

This leads to further questions. What about the matters in which Britain was decidedly not on the right side of history? There is, for example, still no proper memorial to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in either London or — perhaps more glaringly — the port city of Bristol, though there was until very recently a statue there of the slave trader Edward Colston, whose toppling caused much outcry and angst among sections of the British right-wing press, still nostalgic for empire and eager to pounce on anything that can be spun as “wokeness.” (Both cities are now, belatedly, in the process of addressing this lack.)

And what, for that matter, is the precise purpose of a Holocaust memorial in a country that was not a perpetrator, a collaborator or a direct victim of the atrocity in question? Of course, the obvious answers are education and never forgetting. And these are laudable aims. But the distance of the U.K. (and U.S.) from this atrocity nonetheless constitutes what the cultural theorist Edward T. Linenthal has called “a comfortable horrible memory.” In other words, bad things happened and thank God we had nothing to do with them. One can always rely on the Nazis to play the role of “comfortable” bogeyman. You can’t go wrong, morally, if you’re against the Nazis. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin can invoke them as a pretext for “defending” his country by invading Ukraine (bogusly said to be riddled with them). I’m reminded of another, even more flagrantly politicized Holocaust memorial in Budapest, which depicts the angel Gabriel (an avatar of Hungary) being attacked by a German imperial eagle. There’s some clear messaging there — never mind that Hungary fought with the Axis powers during WWII and presided over one of the most appalling chapters of the Holocaust, during which 70% of its Jewish population was murdered in a little over a year.

“The pain of Hungarian Jews is the pain of all the Hungarian people,” said the country’s authoritarian, Putin-admiring leader, Viktor Orban, at the statue’s unveiling in 2014. Well, not at the time. Not when it mattered.

Following Cameron’s announcement in 2015 and his reference to the nation’s “values,” the controversy over the proposed U.K. Holocaust memorial only grew. Victoria Park Gardens, it transpired, was not an ideal location. Not only is it designated as a public park, but there were also concerns it would dominate the area, overshadowing, for example, the memorial to the suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, not to mention the Buxton Memorial Fountain, in honor of the abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton.

And as the U.K. plunged into Brexit, the memorial seemed to be a fig leaf to mask the country’s uglier side, exposed in the arguments over immigration that so infected the EU debate. Meanwhile, Britain’s Jewish community was finding itself at the center of a growing political contretemps, as the endless antisemitism scandals of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party encouraged an embattled and Brexit-divided Conservative Party to rally round British Jews. Not hating Jews became an easy win for the Tories. And what better way to affirm your Judeophilia than by splashing out on a new Holocaust memorial?

Then there were the fins. The memorial’s design, by David Adjaye and his team, was to consist of 23 bronze fins, the 22 gaps between these representing the 22 countries in which the Holocaust annihilated Jewish communities. There is a certain logic to making memorials to atrocity relatively abstract, despite the scope this has for banalization (see Eisenman’s memorial in Berlin at which tasteless selfies are regularly posted); but, as the renowned historian of WWII, Richard J. Evans, argued in the New Statesman, 22 is an “entirely arbitrary” figure. Not only, argued Evans, does it “depend on how you count them.” (Should Serbia and Croatia — where “the dynamics of the Holocaust” played out differently — come under the single umbrella of “Yugoslavia”?) It’s also “inappropriate simply to count states whose Jewish communities were annihilated: a significant proportion of victims were foreign Jews, in most cases refugees, who were often the first to be handed over to the Nazis … precisely because they were foreigners.” Indeed, Evans was skeptical of the entire project, reserving particular scorn for Cameron’s claim about the “permanent statement of our values as a nation.”

“This amounts,” he wrote, “to the political instrumentalization of the Holocaust.”

In the event, plans for the memorial were quashed last year on a technicality after the Supreme Court ruled in line with a 1900 law stating that Victoria Tower Gardens cannot be used as anything other than a public park. The U.K.’s Holocaust Memorial Trust decried this ruling as “regrettable.” But the government has since responded with the Holocaust Memorial Bill, which seeks to update the Victorian legislation. It is currently inching its way through parliamentary procedure. More skirmishes are on the horizon.

If you want to remember the Holocaust without the taint of political spin, there’s nothing quite like talking to a survivor. Opportunities to do this are becoming rarer, and when I was invited recently to interview Josef Lewkowicz, I gratefully accepted. Talking to any sharp and clear-eyed 96-year-old tends to yield insight. But Lewkowicz’s story of hardship, survival and reparation is especially astonishing. I knew this already because I’d read his book, “The Survivor” (2023). But spending 90 minutes with Lewkowicz was a different order of experience entirely. Being in the presence of a person is not the same as reading words in a book or on a website, or listening to a recording, or standing by, or taking selfies in front of, a hunk of commemorative stone. Seeing a tattoo in a photograph is not the same as seeing one on a forearm. Lewkowicz is an impish, warm and energetic nonagenarian. When he isn’t flying around the world to promote his book or take people on tours of Auschwitz, he is living a socially engaged life in Jerusalem. He is very much of the present. He is also a piece of living history.

Lewkowicz was born in a shtetl in southeast Poland in 1926. He was 13 when the Nazis overran Poland, and by the age of 16 he had been separated from his mother and siblings, whom he never saw again. Lewkowicz and his father, Symcha, who would later die in Auschwitz, were requisitioned for slave labor and entered the gauntlet world of concentration camps in 1942. They began in Plaszow, under the extraordinarily brutal regime of the alcohol-sozzled sadist Amon Goeth (the man played by Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”). Oskar Schindler had his factory at the camp and Lewkowicz knew him a little. When I ask him about Schindler and what he was like as a person, he shrugs.

“He was a nobody [in the camp]” and his fame now “is not to believe. … He was not a bad man when everybody was bad, [but he was] at heart a profiteer.”

After the war, Schindler found out that Lewkowicz was looking for Nazis to be tried, “so he started getting scared” and tracked him down. “‘Oskar,’ I told him, ‘you don’t have to worry. You’re not a war criminal. …You might not be a righteous man, but you’re not a war criminal.’” When Schindler asked Lewkowicz whether he could procure a bottle of schnapps for him, Lewkowicz obliged.

Lewkowicz was not one of the 1,200 Jews who survived the war by working in Schindler’s enamel and munitions factory. Instead, he was selected for various details of backbreaking labor, in quarries and fields and mines; he was shunted from camp to camp in horrifying cattle trucks from which more people emerged dead than alive. Lewkowicz survived six camps, including Auschwitz and Mauthausen, over three years of unimaginable terror, barbarity and countless near misses. Goeth, for example, would regularly shoot people for sport. One day, Lewkowicz tells me, he was waiting in line at Appellplatz (roll call) when Goeth pulled out his friend. “I can’t take it that a Jew is so handsome,” the commandant said with a sneer and put a bullet in the man’s head.

When it comes to genocide, the accretion of facts can blot out the particularity, the human story. “I’m conscious that giving too many examples of depravity may dilute their impact,” Lewkowicz writes in his book. And amid the mass of horror in Lewkowicz’s individual story, a single aside stands out for me. “To this day,” he says, “I am very sensitive to barbecues. … I try not to show my discomfort, because I do not want to stop anyone enjoying a hearty meal, but that is my reality.” Nearly 80 years on, Lewkowicz can’t get the stench of the bodies burned at Auschwitz out of his nostrils. No display of bronze fins, however well intentioned, can make you confront history like hearing that.

Nearly 80 years on, Lewkowicz can’t get the stench of the bodies burned at Auschwitz out of his nostrils.

Lewkowicz’s story didn’t stop with the liberation of the camps. After the war ended, he became a Nazi hunter and was instrumental in tracking down and identifying six of his most fearsome tormentors, including Goeth. All six were hanged following the Nuremberg trials.

“They paid,” he tells me, without emotion. “Now it’s history. They’re gone.”

He also spent many months tracking down various children who had been taken in as babies or infants by families, nunneries, monasteries and orphanages, and helping to relocate them to Israel. He repatriated about 600 in all, sometimes against the will of those who had taken in the children and begun raising them as Catholics or had them employed as unpaid domestic servants. Many of those children are likely still alive in Israel today, and Lewkowicz’s son has suggested he try to reunite with them before it’s too late. But Lewkowicz prefers not to. “I want to forget it. It was such a horrible job.”

Remembering his wartime experiences at all was something Lewkowicz came to late in life. “When my children were small,” he tells me, “I did not say anything about the past. I would try to forget. I was only concentrating my energies on the future.” Unlike my old Hebrew teacher, Lewkowicz doesn’t have a tattoo from Auschwitz on his arm. He had it removed by a plastic surgeon in South America, where he went to live after the war. It is a decision he now regrets. He only began speaking publicly about his Holocaust experiences around eight years ago when a rabbi, Naftali Schiff — who has been dedicating himself to recording final witness testimony — persuaded Lewkowicz to go on the record. “The Survivor” emerged from this, along with a documentary about Lewkowicz’s postwar experience, “The Survivor’s Revenge” (2019).

Earlier, I wondered how many Holocaust memorials might be the right amount. How much memorialization is enough? Well, when it comes to direct testimony, there can never be too much. There are always new details to emerge, new elements in the broader story, the whole grisly mosaic. The tale of Lewkowicz’s 600 “saved” children, for example, was previously barely documented.

Another recent book of testimony, “One Hundred Saturdays” (2022) by Michael Frank, tells the story of Stella Levy, an Auschwitz survivor originally from the small Jewish community of Rhodes, Greece, who is now 100 years old. Levy, too, had never spoken in much detail about her past until she met Frank and slowly began to open up. As with Lewkowicz’s tale, Levy’s is full of telling and fascinating details about this already vastly storied subject that might otherwise have been lost to history, not least concerning her early life on Jewish Rhodes, with its Ottoman fashions, Sephardic songs and medieval superstitions, a microculture now completely vanished.

But just look at those ages: Lewkowicz is 96; Levy is in her second century. Although there are still, remarkably, over 145,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Israel, many were too young at the time to remember now, and of the 48,000 survivors of camps and ghettos, the majority are in their 90s and older: the Lewkowiczes and the Levys. Soon there will be no more stories to record.

This is what motivates Schiff. Through his educational organization JRoots, which also organizes trips to Holocaust memorials, including former concentration camps, Schiff has interviewed some 200 aging survivors around the world. These interviews are recorded in 3D, giving future generations the chance to “commune” with such vital witnesses. Indeed, as the remaining survivors die off, virtual Holocaust memory is becoming an increasingly important component of remembrance (there’s even a new book on the subject: “Virtual Holocaust Memory” (2023), by Matthew Boswell and Anthony Rowland). It will be intriguing to see what role AI can play in this evolving story. But these tools are different from firsthand human experience. And as we find ourselves on the cusp of an oral present turning into cultural memory or history — a long-past event to be assimilated alongside all the other long-past instances of human devastation, atrocity and cruelty — I wonder how it will be best to face the Holocaust’s next chapter.

One hope must be that we somehow keep it as free as possible from political posturing — a utopian hope, to be sure, but you have to start somewhere. To achieve this, we must avoid talk of specific British — or Russian, or Hungarian — “values” and think instead of universal ones. And that includes the ones that led to it (prejudice, hatred, indifference, bloodlust, power, greed) as well as the ones we like to tell ourselves we’re striving for (equality, fellowship, peace, acceptance, understanding). We will also need to strike a balance between the appalling particularity of the Holocaust — as with the particularities of all human and cultural tragedies — and its appalling universality. Because “never again” has proved to be “again and again,” just as the Jewish genocide of the mid-20th century was its own terrible example of history’s repetition.

Merely suggesting this would once have been controversial. There was a time when it seemed important to think about the Holocaust as a sui generis event, a horror so off the scale that it would be crude to compare it to anything else. For Claude Lanzmann, who was a young resistance fighter, “there is an unbreachable discrepancy” between the Holocaust’s “causes” and its ultimate unfolding. For Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, “The Holocaust transcends history.” For the philosopher Theodor Adorno, to write poetry after Auschwitz is “barbarism.” Well, actually there isn’t a breach; it doesn’t transcend history; and it isn’t barbarism. But while these pronouncements were understandable in their time and context, it is, as the Holocaust settles into history, becoming increasingly important to think of it within a broader human framework — even as we must never seek to undermine or downplay the specificity of the groups it targeted, including not only Jews but also Roma and Sinti, gays, the mentally and physically impaired, and Slavs (also perpetrators — it’s complex), among others.

This is hardly news, and much work is being done in the academy to this end. As Michael Rothberg argues in his influential book “Multidirectional Memory” (2009), we need to avoid the “relativization and banalization” of the Holocaust at the same time as we want to avoid “undue stress on the singularity of the Holocaust at the expense of its similarities with other events [which] can block recognition of past as well as present genocides.”

“Multidirectional memory” is one term for looking at the Holocaust in the context of other atrocities. The so-called cosmopolitan Holocaust also seeks to understand it from the perspective of various global cultures and nations. In China, for example, where as many as 30 million people perished during the Taiping Rebellion and up to 50 million (depending on how you count it) during the Great Leap Forward, the Holocaust is not necessarily seen as the apotheosis of human suffering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relativization of the Holocaust has early postwar roots. The great sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949, an experience that influenced his writings on racial justice in the U.S., along with his theory of “double consciousness” and his recognition of other oppressed groups. To take another example, in 1962, a small Auschwitz-Hiroshima peace march took place, honoring the victims of atrocities meted out to opposing populations of the war — an occasion that the historian Ran Zwigenberg has emphasized as illustrative of “the emergence of a shared discourse of commemoration of WWII following the Eichmann trial.”

As for causes, the human will to dominate and subjugate is legion, and its reasons for doing so are recognizable and recurrent. There was indeed much that was unique about the Holocaust, but its roots did not grow in a German vacuum. Much useful work, for example, has been done over the years to place the Nazi obsession with eugenics in the context of earlier British and American theorists, such as the biological determinist Francis Galton, or the advocate of compulsory sterilization Harry Hamilton Laughlin. It has also been noted that the so-called one drop rule, which deemed any person with “one drop” of “black blood” to be considered Black — once codified into law in certain U.S. states — was seen as too extreme even for the Nazis in their classifications.

To be fair to Lord Pickles et al., the U.K. Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does some excellent work in commemorating the victims of other genocides — from Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur; and the aim of London’s stalled memorial is, its architects claim, to create “a living place, not just a monument to something of the past.” One wonders, though, whether it is time for a broader monument to human atrocity — one that reminds us how, for all the progress humanity has achieved, we just can’t seem to stop doing terrible things to one another, as the current residents of Bucha in Ukraine, Tigray in Ethiopia and Xinjiang in China know only too well. That, to me, seems like the best way of putting the Holocaust “in the present.” For while memorials may be set in stone, the human story is ongoing, as is our seemingly limitless capacity to harm, to fail to learn, to repeat the tragedies of the past. And no nation I know of can claim to be innocent of such things.

Addendum: I wrote this piece in the summer of 2023. Since then, the world has witnessed Hamas’ appalling attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, resulting in well over 1,000 deaths, the majority civilians, and Israel’s appalling military offensive over the ensuing weeks, which has so far caused the deaths of around 20,000 Gazans, the majority women and children. Around 2 million Palestinians have been displaced, while violence — much of it sparked by rampant Israeli settlers — has coursed through the West Bank. There has been an upsurge in global antisemitism and Islamophobia and a backlash against both, some of which has been nuanced and well intentioned and some of which has merely fanned the flames of discord, played out over social media, in protest on the streets and in sporadic assaults on property and people.

Both “sides” — Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs/Muslims, people who align with either faction for political or other reasons — have leaped to claim ascendancy in the hierarchy of victimhood and to denounce the other “side” as barbarians. The Holocaust has been repeatedly invoked.

Much has been made by Israel about the Hamas attack having caused “the largest loss of Jewish life on a single day since the Holocaust” (words used by the U.K. cabinet minister Michael Gove in an echo of the language coming from the Knesset). Israel, meanwhile, is consistently portrayed by its enemies and critics as the new Nazi oppressor. The famous Gazan poet Refaat Alareer — who was killed on Dec. 6 in what appears to have been a targeted attack by the Israeli army, which also killed six members of his family — likened Hamas’ murderous assault to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, not language I would use (if surely not worthy of a death sentence).

People have marched in the streets in support of the Palestinian cause but also waving Hamas banners and wearing T-shirts glorifying paragliding jihadists. A march in Jewish solidarity against antisemitism in London drew impressive crowds but in places morphed into a demonstration more squarely in support of Israel and thus, at least by implication, the Israeli government, including scores of Israeli flags. In the U.S., there was the strange specter of the presidents of various universities tying themselves in knots before Congress over whether to censure their students for appearing to condone Jewish genocide. Back in London, the only protest I felt comfortable attending was a peace vigil outside No. 10 Downing Street on Dec. 3: no flags, no sides, no victimhood — though very real victims, including both Israelis and Palestinians who had lost friends and family in recent weeks. The archbishop of Canterbury spoke, as did an imam and a rabbi. It was very moving.

The previous month, on Nov. 7, the King’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament included an affirmation of the U.K. government’s commitment to the construction of the new Holocaust memorial next to Parliament. Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle in response to the news, Michael Gove said:

We promised “never again” after the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi era and the systematic killing of 6 million Jews. And yet on 7 October in Israel, we saw … a tragic reminder that the memory of the Holocaust must be preserved for future generations.

Gove added, not for the first time: “The memorial will stand as a profound expression of Britain’s shared values and beliefs.”

Yet surely these past few weeks have been a vexed reminder — as if we needed one — of the dangers of claiming the moral high ground. Victim and oppressor, us and them; attack to defend. Isn’t it precisely this worldview, this kind of thinking, that is helping to drive the latest round of enmity and bloodshed?

An earlier version of this article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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