As it has done since 1982, the United States Congress has officially designated a week to remember the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. For 2009 lawmakers marked off April 19 through 26 as an official moment in American civic time to recall and reflect upon the brutal deaths of the six million European Jews who perished at the hands of the German Nazis and their allies and collaborators. Congress, under the aegis of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has not only sanctioned this memorial week, but it has made it possible for government agencies, states, and cities to act similarly. The Museum’s website offers a range of tools to facilitate the remembering. It includes posters which can be downloaded and then used, curricular material for schools, as well as stickers and a sample proclamation which can in turn be used by public officials. As of the 15th of April, 19 of the nation’s governors have issued this proclamation as have cities and towns across the country, from Alabama to Washington.
This tip of the iceberg in terms of American engagement with the Holocaust in the early twenty-first century stands in bold contrast with the memorial project undertaken by American Jews in the years from the end of World War II with its gruesome revelations of the mass deaths of one-third of world Jewry. The mammoth, well-organized, amply funded, popularly disseminated, and in the case of the Days of Remembrance, officially sanctioned Holocaust memorialization, has had the impact of obscuring a very different kind of culture of remembering which predominated in the years through the middle of the 1960s.
In those years American Jews, on their own, community by community, experimented with ways, times, and language to accomplish two ends vis-à-vis the “catastrophe,” one of the words they used to refer to the horrendous event which eventually came to referred to singularly as “the Holocaust.” In cities around the country groups of Jews, each reflecting a particular ideology and social class position, created ceremonies, usually held some time in the spring, to mark the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and to mourn over the defeat of the “martyrs,” again a widely used phrase. These events took place in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and in rented spaces of all kinds, including hotel ballrooms. The organizers of the events invited notable pubic officials –governors, mayors, congressional representatives, among others—to sit on the stage and watch and listen. The events, whether sponsored by labor unions, Communist-affiliated groups, religions congregations, Zionist societies, or some combination of these, early on achieved a standard form. A cantor intoned the “El Moleh Rahamim,” the God full of mercy dirge. A chorus, of adults or children or both, sang “Ani Ma’amin,” I believe, an anthem of the Holocaust era, supposedly sung by the victims as they faced their deaths. They also sang the “Partisan’s Hymn,” with its stirring words, “never say that you are walking on your last path.” Someone would read a poetic work, with a text, “The Seder of Remembrance,” written in 1952 by Rufus Learsi, a particularly widely used reading. Survivors at these events shared with the audience some details of their harrowing experiences while other speakers orated on the lessons of the brutal deaths of the six millions. Six individuals, often survivors, came up to the dais to light six ceremonial candles, one per million, and the event ended with a group recitation of the kaddish, the traditional prayer for the dead.
Notably the early events came about as a result of the efforts of American Jews in their organizations and their communities taking upon themselves the task of remembering. They did so because they believed doing so to be their obligation and they believed that doing so would have an impact on the remaking of the world, left in shattered pieces after the Holocaust and the war. Unlike in the contemporary era where the state has become an active partner in the remembering the Holocaust, in the two decades following this devastation, American Jews on their own as they text by text, artifact by artifact, and ritual event by ritual event, to make the remembering of the Holocaust an organic part of Jewish community life.