Columns, Opinions

Kumar ’17: In remembrance

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer shocked the country Tuesday by downplaying Hitler’s use of chemical weapons during the Holocaust and referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.” Though he later attempted to backtrack on his comments, it is disconcerting to hear the official mouthpiece of the Trump administration engage in Holocaust denial. In light of reports that 100 gay men have been sent to prison camps in Chechnya, Russia — remember, homosexuals were persecuted alongside Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust — there is reason to fear that history is repeating itself in the worst possible way. These alarming developments highlight the challenges associated with, but also the urgency of, maintaining a robust collective memory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, in particular the differences between individual and collective memory. My grandmother passed away over spring break. Overnight, she was transformed from a person I could call and chat with into someone whom I could only access through my memories. This change had a strange effect: In my mind, my grandmother was now defined by everything I had ever experienced with her or known about her. Rather than interacting with a single version of her in the present, I pictured in my mind each of her past versions, all rolled into one. Reflecting upon everything she had accomplished over the course of her life, I came to admire her and miss her more than I could have imagined based on any one moment while she was still alive. By remembering my grandmother, I have kept her as a vivid and important part of my life.

Since I’ll be graduating in just over a month, I am confronted with a rush of memories from my time as an undergraduate. Many come from my two study abroad experiences, which I look back on as some of the highlights of my time in college. As an undergraduate study abroad peer advisor in the Office of International Programs, I often recount stories of my junior fall semester in Paris to students interested in applying for the program. But as time passes and the distance between then and now widens (I haven’t been in Paris since January 2016), I feel a growing anxiety about the validity of my memory. All of the details that I treasure from that period of my life — the streets I walked, the food I ate, the people I met — grow increasingly blurry. Occasionally, I find myself wondering if I really spent five months in Paris. The only evidence that I did are a few documents and photographs, my memories and the memories of those who were around me.

If my individual memory can grow fainter after just a few months, then it is no wonder that the collective memory of society is so weak. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles with each passing day. Certainly, their individual memories of that terrifying time remain strong even despite their old age. I still remember sharply the night of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which affected me only in that I was in the city at the time. I can only imagine what it means to remember living through the torturous experience of the concentration camps and losing family members to the genocide carried out by Hitler and his cruelest of regimes.

Without the testimony of these survivors to inform today’s society of what happened in the past, how can we hold ourselves — and our leaders — accountable to keep the Holocaust and other historical wrongdoings in clear view? On Sunday, two days before Spicer’s comments, far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen denied France’s responsibility for the arrest of nearly 13,000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942. This denial contradicts both historical evidence and official French government policy, but none of that mattered to her supporters. Just as we have seen lies presented as “alternative facts,” revisionist history represents a clear and present danger to the prevention of future injustices. We must remain vigilant in setting the record straight over and over again: Millions of Jews and other minorities during World War II were taken to death camps, not “Holocaust centers,” and the French government did indeed play a central role in collaborating with the Nazis’ murderous campaign.

To ensure that the Holocaust is never repeated, we must strive to make collective memory as powerful as individual memory. The challenge is to incorporate the history of society into each person’s conception of their own past — even if that history happened decades before we were born. By educating ourselves about the Holocaust through history classes, Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” films and museums, the women and men who perished at the hands of Hitler can be transformed into members of our own family. In turn, their lives and deaths can become almost as valuable to us as those of our own grandmothers and grandfathers. Such an undertaking requires a huge amount of energy and empathy. But at a time when we find ourselves teetering on the precipice between remembering and forgetting, we must push ourselves to hold onto the past as if our lives depend on it.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.