Ashley Belohlavek: Forgetting in the Age of Denial

Arguably, it is hardest to forgive when someone who has wronged you refuses to admit their wrongdoing. Just this week, the Press Secretary of the United States openly said that Jewish people were not assaulted with chemical weapons during WWII. As a very basic fact of the Holocaust and the immense suffering of the Jewish people, this is incredibly insensitive and a complete disregard for outright injustice against human beings.

For an unfortunately long list of injustices, great effort to erase all traces of tragedy has been spent. Holocaust denial is only one of these instances, as Trudy Govier explores another occurrence of this behavior in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Govier talks about the concept of collective harm, or the idea that an individual can be harmed indirectly by the direct harm to someone of the community or group they are both a part of.[1] Some might think that once the harm of the injustice has been done and those who perpetuated it or were hurt by it directly are gone, the wrongdoing has then been corrected or taken care of. I reject this notion based on collective harm as one reason. Even though those directly affected by the Holocaust are mostly gone now, we still have hate crimes against Jewish people, and the possibility of being harmed because of your faith is a valid terror in Jewish people today. An injustice that happened almost a century ago is still wreaking havoc in our society today and Jewish people still fear for their lives because of it, whether they have been physically victimized or not.

Going off of this idea of collective forgiveness, there is an entire layer of emotional impact that needs to be considered. Besides the direct harm of physical damage, there is still some form of emotional deterioration that has happened because of this tragedy that happened so long ago. This is comparable to the effects of slavery on the black community today, as evidence of inherited PTSD has been discovered in black folks today, despite slavery having been more or less ended for a couple centuries. That is why this idea that, “it’s over, so get over it” isn’t logical. Genocide or mass enslavement doesn’t just cease and all of a sudden everything is okay again.

Holocaust denial might not be nearly as big of a deal if it were just one individual spewing hateful rhetoric, however, that’s not the case. Anti-Semitic hate crime is still rampant today, which makes the denial of the original genocide all the more serious. Attempting to eradicate the historical oppression of Jewish people puts them all in even more danger, further perpetuating the violence against them. This is why we cannot forget the actions of Nazi Germany. Not yet, at least. We cannot forget because traces of it are still present in our society today.

David Rieff has some similar thoughts on this topic, more or less arguing that until we as a society have developed a narrative with as little bias or falsehood as possible, we cannot simply forget tragic “mistakes” of groups or nations. Rieff actually uses Holocaust memorial in order to explain his position, one most memorable quote being this: “As one first enters the museum and before one has seen a single image or artifact of either Nazi atrocity or Jewish martyrdom, one must first walk by the serried battle flags of the U.S. Army divisions that liberated some of the concentration camps (there are no British or Russian standards, even though a great many of the museum’s exhibits concern Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British, and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviets).”[2] This may seem like a small observation, but it speaks volumes about the narrative that the West has created surrounding the events of the Holocaust. At the end of the day, we see it as an attack on Jewish people who were ultimately saved by the United States. The problem is that the very first thing one sees are the flags representing the “saviors” of the Jewish people and others victimized by the genocide. Rieff also notes that we equate the flourishing of the Israeli state as proof that anti-Semitism is in the past, yet Jewish community centers in the United States get bomb threats on a daily basis and occasional upheavals of graveyards.

In the spirit of Rieff’s writing, I see our current age as an age stuck in a sort of purgatory. We should have been able to move on from this tragedy by now, but we are unable to because since we still have top officials in this country denying the true nature of the slaughter of Jews during WWII, anti-Semitism is allowed to continue to exist, making it unable to be ignored in good conscience. I believe the title of Rieff’s piece, “In Praise of Forgetting,” may be satirical. I say this because he frames his arguments in a way that criticizes how Western powers specifically have reframed historical events in which they are the victim or the savior, erasing much of the plight of other groups. In doing this, we are altering tragic events without doing them justice. And an event cannot be forgotten if it has not received its justice. This may just be my own personal interpretation of Rieff, but I think this points out a lot of hypocrisies in the narratives the West has crafted for so many historical tragedies.

In conclusion, I think before we can begin to forget, we must first establish what is most truthful, no matter what mistakes were made. A nation shouldn’t necessarily be judged by its worst actions, but its worst actions do indeed matter. Lives lost or destroyed cannot just be swept aside. The ability to forget truly depends on any single event, but I think we too easily decide that something is worth forgetting, especially at the expense of those it actually affected.

[1] Govier, 89

[2] Rieff, 81


Works Cited:

Govier, Trudy. “Forgiveness and Revenge”. Routledge: London and New York. 2002.

Rieff, David. In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. Yale University Press. 2016.