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A woman lights a candle during a ceremony in Palma de Mallorca’s synagogue, Jan. 26, 2006, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial DayJaime Reina/AFP via Getty Images
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A Day—or Two—to Remember the Holocaust

Two different models for commemorating the past

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 27, 2023
Jaime Reina/AFP via Getty Images
A woman lights a candle during a ceremony in Palma de Mallorca's synagogue, Jan. 26, 2006, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial DayJaime Reina/AFP via Getty Images

Should you come across a recently published newspaper article, essay, or book about the past, especially the Holocaust, chances are that the word “history” is followed on the page in quick succession, and overtaken, by that of “memory.” If it were a race, “memory” would win by a mile, leaving “history” in the dust.

When it comes to understanding the past, memory has become the preferred term, the word du jour, at least since the 1990s. That it often bears a prefix, a grace note, of one sort or another adds to its appeal. There’s public memory, private memory, collective memory, collected memory, national memory, and performative memory. History, in contrast, has to make do with its own unadorned self.

In years gone by, history did the heavy lifting; memory, once thought to be notoriously unreliable, even fickle, played second fiddle. But these days, memory takes center stage while history, even in the classroom, waits in the wings: My graduate students, to a person, much prefer—or, in today’s lingo, privilege—memory over history.

How could they not when memory, in Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi’s evocative formulation, is likened to a “form of ingathering”? History bears no such lyrical distinction. At best, it’s seen as a practice, an exercise in documentation; memory, on the other hand, is seen as an embrace of, and a reckoning with, the past. History is construed as a dead letter; memory as a dynamic process.

As a professional historian, I think constantly about the use, circulation, and meaning of words such as history and memory; the values they convey; the practices and institutions to which they give rise, and the distinctions they cultivate. It’s my stock in trade, which is why an event like this week’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a United Nations initiative, is well worth noting. Contemplating this moment on the contemporary calendar highlights what’s at stake in the relationship between history and memory: how we remember.

In November 2005, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on member nations to set aside January 27 each year, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to memorialize victims of the Holocaust and to commit to ongoing programs of Holocaust education. “Resolutions come and go, but this one you could call eternal because it means that every year from now on there will be a commemoration,” Dan Gillerman, Israel’s then-ambassador to the U.N., observed, careful not to point out that International Holocaust Remembrance Day had been some 60 years in the making. (It’s worth noting that the creation and erection of Holocaust memorials in Germany and elsewhere was also a belated phenomenon, a product of the 1990s.)

Where the latter was animated by accountability, Holocaust Memorial Day, as it was first known, seems to have been occasioned by a spike in, and the politicization of, Holocaust denialism. The need to demonstrate an “unfaltering response to prevent the occurrence of such crimes” motivated its establishment, or so related the president of the General Assembly at the time.

Marked by candlelight vigils, musical performances, large scale gatherings, and much speechmaking, its posture was, and remains, a defensive one—more of a guarding against, a corrective, than a form of soul-searching. Little wonder, then, that at times International Holocaust Remembrance Day has backfired, as it did in Poland in 2018. In that year, much to the dismay of many, the country’s parliament marked the occasion by issuing a bill that would, in the words of a New York Times editorial, criminalize “any suggestion of complicity by the Polish state or the Polish nation in the Nazi death machine.”

World Jewry, for its part, seems to have little need for a one-day-a-year affair like International Holocaust Remembrance Day when earnest, well-intentioned evocations of the Holocaust suffuse the modern Jewish experience and virtually all its institutions, from museums and monuments to the classroom and summer camping. Besides, modern-day Jews have their own, explicitly Jewish day of commemoration: Yom HaShoah, which, strategically positioned between Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, takes place on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan.

An Israeli innovation of the 1950s, this public remembrance day both draws on, and stands apart from, the long-standing Jewish tradition of commemorative fast days. On the 27th of Nisan, “memory is performed ritually as part of a national commemorative cycle,” James Young observed in 1990 in a landmark essay memorably titled “When a Day Remembers,” noting the ways Yom HaShoah gathers together discrete, collected memories and nationalizes them.

In contrast to the United States, where Yom HaShoah is observed, if at all, largely within the context of the synagogue or the local JCC, in Israel its rituals are more bound up with the commonweal than with professions of faith.

As the sound of an air-raid siren, not unlike that of a shofar, pierces the air, Israel comes to a standstill. Yad Vashem-The World Holocaust Remembrance Center remains open until midnight; and official, large-scale gatherings are held in public venues in which memorial candles are lit, many speeches delivered, and Kaddish recited. All this, along with a blitz of Holocaust-related programming—film screenings, television programs—ensures that Yom HaShoah is the “guardian of memory.”

What, then, are we to make of International Holocaust Remembrance Day? Where might it belong in the grand scheme of things? Circling back to the distinction between history and memory, I’d suggest that the U.N.-sponsored initiative stands in for history, while Yom HaShoah does the honors for memory. The first documents and instructs; the second welds those who observe it into a community with a shared past.

And yet, for all their differences, these two exemplars of “when a day remembers” have something significant in common. They illustrate the process by which a modern commemorative occasion—the offspring of a declaration—is called into being, ceremonializing time and transforming it into a “memorial space.”

International Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaShoah complement each other, holding out the possibility that, when remembering is called for, history and memory ought to complement each other, too.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.