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Now Online: Two Pieces on European Holocaust Memory

Luis Montero Álvarez’s Stolperstein in Oviedo, Spain.

Andrew Silverstein

Dear Reader,

At Jewish Currents, we’ve long been interested in exploring how the Holocaust’s direct descendants are working through complex questions about memory and legacy. In these pages, grandchildren of survivors (like me) have often contended not only with the stories of our grandparents and their meaning in the present, but also with the proliferation of stories like these in Jewish American life, as well as American life writ large. We wrestle with the role such narratives play in nationalist mythmaking, both in the US and Israel, and also with the ickiness of their profitability in the market, both in publishing and on film. In this saturated environment, it’s unclear whether any Holocaust stories can transcend cliché and overdetermination, which complicates our relationship to the oft-repeated mandate—and our own compulsions—to tell them.

But working on our last issue, in which several pieces delved into memory culture in Europe, I was struck by how different the picture is across the pond, where in some places, the memory work has not even begun, and in others, it has been seized for somewhat uncanny ends. Spain, for instance, has recently begun installing Stolpersteine, small brass plaques embedded in sidewalks, to honor its Holocaust victims—in their context, not Jews, but “deportados,” Republican fighters deported to Mauthausen following the Spanish Civil War by the fascist dictator and Hitler ally Francisco Franco. In a country that observed a formal “Pact of Silence” after the end of the dictatorship, and where Civil War memory and memorials remain politically polarized terrain, these Holocaust memorials to Republican fighters have struck a rare compromise: The left likes them because they honor Republicans and spur conversation about Franco’s victims, while the right tolerates them because, as Holocaust memorials, they implicate Hitler above Franco. As one descendant of a Republican fighter who had a stone laid for her great-uncle in Oviedo, Spain, told reporter Andrew Silverstein: “That’s the beauty of this monument. It is apolitical. Even though this person was a Communist, they don’t put the word ‘Republicano’ in the memorial. They don’t put the words ‘guerra civil.’” Silverstein’s fascinating report, which recently became available online, dives into the knotty politics of Spanish Stolpersteine, raising questions about the function and efficacy of “depoliticized” memory work. In a country that has only just begun to face its history, he asks, “does routing Civil War memory through the Holocaust reinforce its erasure?”

Of course, there has been no such “Pact of Silence” in Germany. What began as the agitation of smaller groups of memory activists in the ’60s and ’70s has grown into what often seems like a national obsession. And yet, there is the creeping sensation among observers that, as the philosopher Susan Neiman told reporter Peter Kuras, German memory culture has “gone haywire” in the last several years. Kuras’s eye-popping report, which went online last week, takes Germany’s expansive system of antisemitism commissioners as its case study in memory gone awry, presenting a portrait of a government bureaucracy peopled largely by non-Jews with scant expertise, for whom “antisemitism” has become the vehicle for state-sanctioned Zionism and Islamophobia. To be frank, this story is bonkers. During the editing process, I was continually shocked by the sheer chutzpah of these figures, who frequently tell Jews who disagree with their political orientation that perhaps they aren’t Jews at all, or that they’re not being sensitive enough to the German position vis-à-vis the Holocaust. This has coincided with a draconian crackdown on Palestinian speech in Germany; protests of Israeli oppression have been barred for several years in a row—with input from antisemitism commissioners, as Kuras’s reporting reveals. As we wrote in our Spring issue responsa, there is something uniquely mind-bending about how Holocaust memory is now being harnessed by the historical perpetrator for counterintuitive ends.

But lest we get too smug, we must remember that Germans are not unique in turning the Holocaust into a political tool or an identity marker. We cannot bracket off the German case from our own Jewish/American struggles with memory, in which difficult questions about ownership, exploitation, and politics are central—and more so the further we get from the event. On the contrary, their alarming example reminds us of the potential for perversion that lurks in all our Holocaust memory work, and the vigilance required to do that work justice.

Arielle Angel

Step by Step
Can Holocaust remembrance stones break Spain’s “Pact of Silence” around its civil war?
Andrew Silverstein
The Strange Logic of Germany’s Antisemitism Bureaucrats
An army of antisemitism commissioners was supposed to help Germany atone for its past. Critics say it is evidence of a memory effort gone haywire.
Peter Kuras