Jean Cocteau wrote a beautiful essay “On Memory”. He details the illusive nature of memory; brilliantly and poetically articulating how it can guide us, protect us and serve as a cornerstone for our understanding of truth, but it can also engender falsity and unintentional delusional understanding.
Cocteau quotes a famous philosopher who wrote, “We are walking on Roman rooftops”. Cocteau notes, “This was just how we felt when we were walking in Alexandria where a new city was built on top of the old.
It floats there like a memory. One detects its presence like some phantom recollection when we feel it to be there without being able to respond to our queries”.
The image prompted me to consider the state of affairs in America. What new city are we building on top of the promise of our forefathers and foremothers?
I just completed reading Elie Wiesel’s book “Night”. I was inspired to read it after the shootings in Pittsburgh at the Jewish temple where eleven people lost their lives at the hand of an anti-Semitic gunman.
Wiesel’s compelling account of his experiences in Nazi death camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald and his harrowing quest for survival, gives pause to the importance of memory.
He recalls the animal instinct of survival and the dehumanizing process of Nazis stripping prisoners of their dignity by depriving them of food and basic necessities and turning them against one another in the name of survival. He documents the haunting deaths of innocents who were tortured by the likes of Dr. Mengale, gassed, brutalized, starved and cremated alive and exterminated due to their faith and beliefs.
Collective memory is an imperative in Jewish culture, especially when it comes to remembering the sacrifices of Jews during the Holocaust. I’ll never forget Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance that houses the ashes of those exterminated in the camps and standing on the boulevard of trees planted by heroes who stood up to injustice in memory of the lost.
Walking the hallowed ground of Israel inspired me as Alexandria did Cocteau.
I remember standing on a street just outside one of the gates to the old city during the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel — Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). At 10 am a siren rang out across the city to remind people of the special day. It was a powerful moment for me, as I was witness to those who stopped what they were doing to take in the moment. Some motorists stopped their cars in a solemn act of memory. I was surprised to see a few cars that didn’t stop. “Look at the license plates, they’ll tell you if they are really Jewish. They may have been registered plates with the Palestinian Authority”, said my guide. “Then again, like any aspect of humanity, we choose to remember what we want to remember and there are those who forget to honor the memory of the dead due to their own selfish interests”.
“Never forget” is a phrase that veterans are starting to use in parting. It’s a touching way to endear one another to the service of humanity. Never forget 911. Never forget the sacrifices one has made in the wars in the “Great Wars” and Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
The statement implies that we need to apply meaningful memory to our lives to be mindful of the sacrifices people make on behalf of our freedoms. It is a clarion call to remember those heroes who sacrificed their lives on our own soil for the sake of saving innocents in the name of freedom.
But what good is it to say, “Never forget” if we don’t apply the memory of evils to our everyday life? When our government refuses political prisoners a place of sanctuary, have we really remembered? When we deny the basic human rights of parents to not be separated from their children, have we remembered? When we allow for hatred and xenophobia as acceptable public discourse in the name of “Nationalism”, have we remembered? When we speak of building walls when presidents Kennedy and Reagan implored foreign leaders to tear down their walls and welcome freedom, have we remembered?
The Bible is a great resource for helping us to remember the intentions of Jesus and Judeo-Christian ethic. It stands to reason that we refer back to it as a blueprint for our moral behavior. But in a day of rationalism and outright denial of injustice, are we truly remembering the sacrifice Jesus made in the name of humanity? Are we remembering the blood sacrifice of an innocent man who stood for the single act of justice on behalf of “the least of these”?
In our collective conscience at this time in our history, can we honestly say we are honoring the collective memory of our forefathers and foremothers? Or are we standing on the rooftops of Rome blind and deaf to the injustices of history?