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Paul Greenberg: Holocaust Day again

Another year, another Holocaust Day -- just as there's another Earth Day, Groundhog Day, Tax Day, Valentine's Day ... you name it. It had to happen to the Holocaust, too. It's become a Day.

It's a familiar transformation -- from the unique to the annual, from enormity into class assignment. It's the standard modern metamorphosis: Awe gives way to routine, shock to ceremony, the monstrous to the mundane, the horror to lectures about it.

Is there any better way to reduce the unique to the ordinary than to make it a Day? It's the essence of modernization: trivialization. When was Holocaust Day -- Sunday, Monday? I forget.

The process is familiar by now, and it happened some time ago to the Holocaust. Something singular, ineffable, beyond words ... is turned into nothing but words, something no longer unique in history but today's lesson plan. The inexpressible sorrow and pity of it, the shame and anguish of it, is turned into ... what, exactly, if anything? A notation on the calendar? A college major? A website? A springboard for the current political cause of some president or prime minister somewhere?

So does the Holocaust become a genocide like any other genocide, entitled to the same neglect from the world. When the Holocaust becomes Holocaust Studies, what happened is turned into academic studies of what happened.

It's the inescapable, modern way: demystification. The greatest mystery cannot survive being talked to death. Now we have Holocaust Day the way we have Black History Month. It is observed mainly for ceremonial purposes, or political ones, or just out of a sense of duty that became rote long ago.

Yes, the abyss that was and is the Holocaust must be explored, none of it forgotten, so it will never happen again. Yes, we know it all needs to be written down, recorded, studied. But our attention wanders. How many times can we be told the same thing without its paling? Yet it is no longer possible simply to contemplate it in silence. Silence may be the one thing our ever-tolerant society cannot tolerate.

Silence in the waning presence of the Holocaust may still be possible, but only in theory, not in practice. Silence is the one service all our modern, sophisticated, wondrous, interconnected technology does not provide. Our consumer culture can produce a new gizmo a minute -- the Next Big Thing that we all must have. But not silence. And not the whole constellation of things that go with silence: reflection, reverence, privacy, solitude, contemplation, awe.

. . .

But all that is so ... yesterday. To be moved by the Holocaust is passé -- if it is possible at all by now. It embarrasses some of us, and bores more of us. It has become just another ceremony, just another Day, if we notice it at all. Making something dutiful can make it forgettable.

Now we can get the Holocaust on Facebook -- for perfectly practical, proper, useful, understandable, educational reasons. The Holocaust had its own page on YouTube the other year. We know it is important that we talk about it -- far more important than anything we might have to say about it.

There's no explicit law against silence, but there might as well be. Presidents want to have a Conversation About Race, but what they have to say about it is ... we forget. But we do know something can't be capital-I Important unless we talk about it, preferably in a group, soulfully, like guests on "Oprah" or "Charlie Rose."

How long have I been reading/talking/arguing about the Holocaust? I grew up with it. There were countless Zionist rallies, letter-writing campaigns, angry editorials in the Jewish press, Israel bond sales, fiery speeches by mesmerizing orators, scholarly articles and books and books and more books ... till the horror of it was reduced to an industry.

The unspeakable reality became the stuff of blockbuster productions and Academy Awards, the awe-ful singularity of it was reduced to a Steven Spielberg special. That's how history is transformed into a wax museum, or maybe a Quentin Tarantino number. Sentimentality isn't really that far from exhibitionism. Each coarsens, if in a different but related way.

. . .

Studies of the Holocaust now abound, some of them solid ones. There is Gerald Reitlinger's pioneering "The Final Solution," followed by Lucy Dawidowicz's "The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945." Though that particular war scarcely ended in 1945. Just look at the Mideast today. Or some of the rhetoric at the United Nations. Doing scholarly research on the Holocaust isn't that much of a challenge; the Germans kept excellent records, as usual, down to the last umlaut and gold filling.

The best of the scholarly studies may be the slimmest: Richard Rubenstein's "The Cunning of History." More a meditation than a history, it doesn't deal with how the Holocaust was perpetrated so much as why it was a natural consequence and consummation of modernity. The author could have taken as his motif Max Weber's definition of modernity: rationalization, bureaucratization and the disenchantment of the world. Now everything could be, would be, must be explained, planned, done. Now matter how awful. There were no longer any limits.

Max Weber, that prescient sociologist, could not have foreseen the Holocaust in his early 20th century time, but he described with uncanny precision the confluence of ideas necessary for it to occur when it did. He would have seen that the Holocaust was not a discontinuity in the history of Western civilization but a natural progression.

Secularization, social Darwinism, the idea of surplus populations, totalitarian ideology, the modern all-powerful State, technocratic organization, all of that came together at one terrible point: 1933-45. And evil became mundane, ordinary, routine, a step up the career ladder for all the little Adolf Eichmanns of the world. Call it the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt did in a flash of insight. Now we get the Holocaust on Facebook. And we can all tweet about the unspeakable.

Through the years I would read the books, attend the seminars, listen to the professors and politicians argue about the Nuremberg Trials and the supposed German character, and whether the Jews were victims or accessories to their own murder, change my mind and then back again a dozen times, get sick of the whole subject, then return to it. Till silence opened like a refuge and insight. And sanctuary. By now there may be only one appropriate response to the Holocaust -- a scream that seems to go on forever. And then -- silence.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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