Bearing witness to the witnesses

It was a week for news. The AWACS sale commanded front-page headlines, along with the World Series. There were the usual feature stories about Hallowe'en. Lady Diana had captured the hearts of Wales. A new line from Calvin Klein required description, and a $50,000 prize was being offered for the best new orchid hybrid.

No wonder the gathering of Holocaust survivors and their liberators at the State Department received scant attention. Even the New York Times buried at the bottom of an inside page its account of the three-day conference of concentration camp prisoners from 13 countries and the Allied soldiers who, by the twist of history, happened to be the ones to free them.

It is always presumed that we need to be reminded of subjects like Hallowe'en and Lady Diana and Calvin Klein, but we do not need to be reminded of the Holocaust. How could we forget?

Yet in explaining ''Why I Write'' the novelist Elie Wiesel, a child of the Holocaust and chairman of the conference, cited ''the fear of forgetting.''

''The fear of forgetting''! How could anybody forget? And yet in a Los Angeles courtroom, just a few weeks before the conference, a judge had to make it legal not to forget. An organization called the Institute for Historical Review denied there was a Holocaust and offered to pay $50,000 to anybody who could prove that gas chambers existed. A Long Beach businessman named Mel Mermelstein, who lost his mother and two sisters at Auschwitz, sued after the Institute deemed his evidence inconclusive. When the case came before the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Judge Thomas L. Johnson ruled: ''The court does take judicial notice that Jews were gassed to death in Poland at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.''

And so, officially, the Holocaust is not to be forgotten in certain parts of Southern California. But Wiesel estimates that more than 100 publications in more than a dozen countries have claimed during the past decade that the execution of six million Jews never happened -- the Holocaust is a myth.

As aids to the collective memory, the survivors and the liberators went on videotape with their recollections. These testimonies will be placed in the archives of a Holocaust museum, to be erected on the mall in the nation's capital.

With such a tangible memorial, can anybody ever forget again? The awful answer is: yes. We have a gift for forgetting. Each day a new set of headlines erase yesterday's, the way a new recording erases the old on a tape.

''Remember me'' -- this is the cry from the heart of a thousand worthy causes , a hundred candidates for election, and a dozen tootpaste ads.

We cannot even remember our own ''me'' - the stranger that was us 10 years ago, with the funny clothes and hairstyle, not to mention the dated ideologies.

Forgetting has become the self-protective technique for surviving perpetual change.

The Holocaust conference made things easy for us by celebrating deliverance rather than captivity. But it would have done no good to bully us with excruciating details. We are experts at going to horror movies and tearing up our impressions with the ticket stub.

Or we can forget by turning everything into an issue, abstracted into neat file folders: Racism, Genocide, etc.

As for the statistics, those are what we store in computers. Let the electronic memory banks of the Los Angeles County Court and the videotapes of the Holocaust museum do the remembering for us.

But, of course, automated remembering is not enough. ''Bearing witness'' -- the phrase was pronounced again and again at the conference. Only human beings can bear witness, for bearing witness is an act of responsibility.

We talk, like losing generals, about ''learning the lessons of history.'' It goes deeper than that. What we really want when we look back at all the nobility and all the cruelty is to be better human beings -- to stop being intermittent builders and intermittent destroyers, intermittent peacemakers and intermittent killers. To remember history is to promise ourselves that. To forget, as Wiesel observed, is to kill twice.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.