April 27th is Yom HaShoah, one of several Holocaust remembrance days observed around the world at various points in the year. It is also Genocide Awareness Month, which marks the anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide (which began on April 24th, 1915), the Holocaust (or, namely the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, 1943), the Cambodian Genocide (on April 19th, 1975), and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (on April 7th, 1944), As I mentioned in January, dates such as these mark a need for a collective memory, even as dates and temporal boundaries often fail to account for the long-term effects of genocide and mass violence.
As a Jew, and at this particular moment during the ongoing war and mass violence in Ukraine, I struggle in 2022 (as in most years) to reconcile the official calls to remember with the more subjective, personalized constructions of memory that inevitably emerge from events such as these. I am reminded that public displays of memory, though central, can be brittle, and often serve contemporary state politics. Yom HaShoah is no exception, as a holiday directly tied to the State of Israel’s larger memory projects. The “complications” this date entails for both Jews and non-Jews alike, who are critical of Israeli domestic and foreign policies, also pertains to my specialized knowledge Yiddish history and culture that often gets left out of Zionist narratives. Days such as Yom HaShoah should in theory be encouraging a broader, more inclusive definition of collective memory, but we know that these calls often fail to reach beyond the limits of nationalism and geopolitics.
Over the past few months several parties have asked me whether I could comment publicly on Ukraine. I continue to be reluctant for several reasons, none of which have to do with my unequivocal condemnation of the Russian invasion and the war crimes being committed. I realize this hesitance might also sound self-effacing, and it might appear to some as a form of cynical disavowal or scholarly isolationism. It might also exacerbate the noted absence of the humanities in many of the recent academic roundtables contextualizing the war. It is important, however, to note that the causes for this absence are numerous. The dearth of scholars with stable employment after decades of budget cuts is one reason. There is also a continued belief (wrongly, I might add) among many humanities academics that scholarly inquiry is supposedly divorced from the political forces affecting our (and our students’) work and lives. My hesitance, however, stems from an earnest self-critique of what my biography and expertise mean.
For example, I struggle with the ways my personal profile supposedly serves as a source of clarity when: the brittleness of memory if I’m not careful can serve as a source of power and control. It is why, and contrary to what many of my American Jewish peers seem to believe, I don’t feel my ancestral ties to what is today northwestern Ukraine, where in 1942 nearly all of my ancestors remaining in the multi-ethnic town of Ustile were murdered (along with 90-95% of the Jewish population), provides me with any more than an impressionistic understanding of the suffering we are seeing in 2022. Furthermore, I argue that the doctoral dissertation I am defending in a few weeks does not offer much clarity for recent events either—at least in the way some currently envision. It is true that, in addition to learning an ancestral language of Yiddish to fluency, I have spent years tracing the various ways Yiddishists from what is today western and central Ukraine, hailing from multiple locales and subscribing to differing political ideologies, translated German verse texts into Yiddish throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It is true that this literary productivity was often the product of, or at least indirectly affected by, collective trauma. It might be true that the past hauntingly echoes the present, as regions once part of the Habsburg and Russian Empires remain central to current events. However, I as an American Jew must instead find ways to address the needs of refugees and the victims of war crimes in Ukraine today without centering myself or my intergenerational trauma. I say this as an American citizen, whose sole source of memory politics should not be Ukraine of a century ago. As I write this, I fear that the brittleness of memory in the United States has made our frames of reference so narrowly selective and competitive that it is not sustainable. We are seeing this play out in multiple arenas in frightening, reactionary ways.
But back to my previous point: these conundra among academics are also directly related to memory politics more broadly. Who gets to speak, and who does not, on issues of local and global importance are central questions to larger institutional and societal reckonings in the United States and abroad. What are we “remembering” currently as a collective, and why? Inversely, and more importantly, what are we choosing to forget? What makes it easier to harken back to a particular genocidal event (i.e, the Holocaust, or even the 19th- and 20th-century pogroms that preceded it) than to more recent violence and human rights abuses in Eastern Europe and elsewhere? What are we claiming responsibility for remembering on national(ist) days of remembrance?
Working for a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and as an expert in modern Jewish cultures (which, I will continue to emphasize, stretches beyond the specific episodes of mass death and destruction during the Holocaust), I am troubled by the dubious ways various world leaders and cultural figures continue to evoke Holocaust memory and victimhood. Explicitly referencing (or eliding) a historical event serves as a powerful political tool that shapes collective understanding of mass violence past and present. I am disheartened by the casual evocations of genocidal acts. For one, the millions of victims deported and murdered—that include Jews, Roma, Afro-Germans, Queer people, people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and others—by Nazi Germany and its collaborators should neither serve as rationale for further violence (as Russian officials have stated in their supposed quest to “De-Nazify” Ukraine), nor become symbolic pawns in state diplomacy when most acts of genocide have gone untried and reparations remain an open question. States thus fail to provide justice for genocidal acts, even as the memory of past traumas are currently distorted to justify war and human rights violations. This is a sad fact that extends beyond the current war between Russia and Ukraine.
This all might sound deeply cynical, but I promise there are ways to overcome the challenges we face regarding public memory. Like always, now is the time to make conscious and conscientious political and ethical choices about the media one consumes, and about the stances one chooses to take. It is my hope that, in addition to (paying what is a high price for) sound journalism, if we are to truly engage critically with the humanitarian crises and devastation this war is causing, we can start by engaging in whatever way possible with non-Anglophone sources—either in other languages or in translation. This includes the diverse cultural responses from people in Ukraine. As my own background is in foreign languages, texts, and media, we should engage deeply with individualized responses to the violence unfolding, which in turn complicate the ways memory is already being co-opted and mediated.
Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where he is the educational outreach and special collections coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In addition to being an instructor of German studies, he has also taught Yiddish coursework with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and at the Ohio State University.