Today, Jan. 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, just a few weeks after the domestic terrorists in the Capitol attack wore a “Camp Auschwitz” tee-shirt. In the same week that Kristallnacht is remembered as the beginning of the Holocaust, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Jewish grandmother and Holocaust survivor, who is also an appointed lifelong Senator in Italy’s Parliament, has been put under police escort following threats from members of Italy’s ultra-right, aka neo-Nazis aka white supremacists.
In summary: a woman survived a genocide only to be threatened by the same amount and type of hate as to be put under state police protection.
So why should we remember and why are the words we use so critical in how we remember?
[spoiler alert!] In “Game of Thrones”, the concept that the ultimate villain, the Night King, was after destroying the Keeper of Memories and Stories, the Raven King, is vital. [end spoiler]
Memories are the foundations of relationships, families, cultures, and of our human history.
History was predominantly an oral tradition and even when it was written down, or photographed or filmed as it is now, it takes the shape and language of the storyteller. The narration of events immediately has the filter of each of our own editorial lens, conscious and subconscious.
Due to this oral and filtered nature for most of human time, history is like the game “telephone,” in that what actually gets passed down is light years from what really happened.
Many times history is the version of the victor and spoken about in that victor’s language. A “rebel” and “terrorist” to some is the “savior” to others, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Christians actively remembered him and considered it their sacred duty to do so. As the underrated movie, “Wag the Dog” showed, it is possible to literally create historical events that never even happened.
How we remember
We remember through language. Language is not just a jumble of words in a writer’s toolbox. It is a system and structure stored in people’s brains as lexicons and accessed via neurological functions. How we think and the words we use are intricately connected and culturally specific.
Most ancient religions, Hinduism, Judaism for instance, were passed down orally. Scriptures were recited and memorized. If language is to be take into the context of a lexicon then an entire tradition’s lexicon is encoded in what is passed down.
The Hebrew word “zakar” is almost always translated as “remember” in the King James Version of the Bible. But analyzed in context, done well here by Dough Ward, “zakar” actually has a deeper meaning than anything the English language can explain in one word. It means “remembrance that leads to action.” It isn’t enough to remember. This falls in line with the Jewish religion and culture where there are several holidays in which the history of the Jews are repeated so as to not forget. It is a culture for which it isn’t enough to “not forget,” or “remember.” You are called on to actively remember.
The need for memory
Whether history or religion or mythology, there is an inherent duty to remember for an often sacred reason. So, when I question why on earth should we remember history or remind others, it is because there are forces at work who want to erase or rewrite a historical account, which will definitely replay the hard lessons of history. That is why Alex Jones tried so hard to erase the tragedy of Sandy Hook despite events happening before our very eyes.
This active remembrance is why Columbus Day, a day decided upon in language and name by the victors, has been renamed Indigenous People’s Day in some states, and will hopefully become nationwide. It is a day which is becoming a day of active remembrance of what actually happened when European settlers came to the New World. Like Kristallnacht, that “discovery” phase led to the annihilation of millions of people, Native Americans, in a genocide.
This is why activists and politicians alike must remember and remind. Anti-semitism never is alone. It comes with its companions of racism and misogyny. Italy’s troubles also include widespread racism, including racist chants and monkey sounds by ultra-right-wing soccer fans directed at the black Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli. Gender violence is increasing in Italy even as crime decreases as a whole. There was one femicide every two days in Italy between 2006 and 2016 and, like the US, one in three women assaulted by the age of 17. Femicide (cases in which women are murdered, usually by their current or former partners) have recently been sanctioned even in courtrooms in Italy, where cases like the Brock Turner case in the US, have enraged the country.
Public sanctioning of hate and the rise of violence is never isolated towards a single group for long. And as history shows, when those forces take hold, economic instability and nationwide, even international violence threatens a country’s peace.
The silver lining: Italy is not letting these voices of hate in passively. The country as a whole chooses to remember the Holocaust and not repeat its mistakes, that is why last year, Ms. Segre was named senator for life — an honor recognizing her role in Italy’s historical memory of the Holocaust.
Paolo Berizzi, author of books on the rise of neo-Nazism and neofascism “blames postwar democratic governments for believing that the ideology was dead and buried,” echoing Italian writer, Umberto Eco’s term of “Eternal Fascism” saying:
Today’s neofascists don’t wear black shirts. Neofascism expresses itself in new liquid ways, sometimes hard to identify, but in the end, very visible.Fascism can be born or reborn at any time and in any part of the world under new forms.
As hate crimes rise in the United States, by over 200% since 2016, children are put into cages, families separated, we need to remember. We need zakar: to act and remember.
By 1938, when Kristallnacht occurred, there had been five years of active public stances of hate sanctioned. It had become a state where active political opposition had been crushed, so effective resistance was met with swiftly and violently. But it wasn’t simply lack of activism. It was also that remaining passive had become a way of life.
As Professor of German History at London College, Mary Fulbrook wrote of Kristallnacht:
People did not need to be anti-Semitic; they did not need to be infused with hatred. They just needed to remain passive for the terror unleashed by the Nazis to take its deadly toll.
Remembrance is all we have. Skepticism isn’t a flaw, even if it’s about corroborated events. It’s when that skepticism is also accompanied by a refusal to accept corroborated facts, witness statements, and data that it becomes dogmatic faith. When a person refuses to alter their perception despite evidence to the contrary, we are talking about faith not the recording of an event. When that faith leads to defamation, violence, or harassment as in the case of Ms. Segre and Alex Jones, that faith becomes blind ideology.
Currently, we face a group of fanatic ideologists. Such groups, like al-Qaeda and the insurrectionists at the Capitol, who resort to violence are called terrorists for they want to recreate their reality or have others accept, regardless of how grounded it is in any data, facts, or evidence, at any cost.
We now face the unprecedented problem of disbelieving events even as they unfold. A vocal portion of the United States, such as Congreswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene who believes Sandy Hook never occurred, has come to believe if they weren’t present at an event, it didn’t happen.
So, remembrance becomes more important than ever so we don’t mistake ideology or fanaticism for news reporting or beliefs that can be debatable and compromised on to reach common ground. That distinction is vital.
This article details how the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, a failed coup 15 years to the day before the pogrom known as Kristallnacht, was the harbinger of the Nazis. What history shows us is that the smaller, violent events, such as the Capitol insurrection, is often the predecessor for what’s to come.
Even 15 years later, most Germans were horrified by Kristallnacht but did nothing thinking, this isn’t who we are; it can’t get worse; we’ll elect someone new and this will be all right.
Zakar: It isn’t enough to remember. Remember…then act.