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Memorializing our grief

History is merciless, and can wipe away even the strongest and most important memories if we don’t fight to keep them with us.

The World Trade Center memorial in New York City, March 2012. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The World Trade Center memorial in New York City, March 2012. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur

Sept. 11 fell on Shabbat this year. That timing gave us the opportunity not only to rest but to reflect, free of the distractions of the workweek. To think back and remember what that tragic and seminal day meant to us—and what it did to us. 

Now that the retrospectives and memorials have concluded, most of us will now put our grief aside for another year or five, until we’re once again reminded that we all have an obligation to join the mourners for whom every day is 9/11.

For the vast majority of Americans, the sense of loss is less personal and more communal. But unfortunately, that also makes it more fleeting. Twenty years after radical jihadists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the commemorative events are a bit less central to the national conversation, as our memories of the fear and fury we experienced that day gradually dim.

I worry that soon they may begin to feel slightly strained and somewhat obligatory, and that before long only those who lost a loved one will still feel the hole inside themselves that we all once felt.

I was fortunate to have the invaluable opportunity last week to moderate a panel discussion for the Holocaust Museum Los Angeles “Building Bridges” program on this topic, at which the extraordinary Stephen Smith of USC’s Shoah Foundation helped us understand the importance of memorializing our grief. He explained why confronting painful memories and hearing stories of survivors and witnesses can help us better understand a terrible experience, so we can confront and process our suffering, and recognize the impact it has had on us.

Dr. Smith explained that the point was not Sept. 11, but Sept. 12. He told us that the days and years that follow an atrocity provide us an opportunity not simply to relive it but to learn how it has shaped us. But that self-education requires us to face up to those difficult memories and to be willing to re-examine and reconsider them, rather than to relegate them to pages in history books and museum exhibits as the years pass.

The dedicated women and men at the Holocaust Museum and the Shoah Foundation work tirelessly to prevent the worst of human history from being filed away, and to helping those too young to have experienced the horrors of the Holocaust to understand its relevance to our present and future. But despite the heroic work of these two organizations and many others with similarly inspiring and necessary missions, every year that passes takes us just a little bit further away from the pain of Auschwitz and the devastation of Dachau.

It also means that we are one year further away from the founding of the modern state of Israel, and public opinion polling shows that American Jews have gradually begun to emotionally distance ourselves from the Jewish state. That separation is developing largely along generational lines. Older Jews, who survived the Holocaust or who heard the stories directly from their parents, are much more likely to recognize the importance of Israel to the Jewish experience. Younger people, for whom the brutality and barbarism of Nazi Germany are more remote and antique abstractions, tend to feel less of an affinity.

For most of our lives, we tell each other that we must “Never Forget.” But history is merciless and can wipe away even the strongest and most important memories if we don’t fight to keep them with us. The legacy of 9/11 begins to slip between our fingers, the echoes of the Holocaust grow fainter, and the only thing that can preserve those memories is our own determination not to let them fade.

Ernest Hemingway said that we can be strong at broken places. Confronting the horror, facing up to the pain and understanding its impact on us is excruciatingly difficult. Never forgetting is the first step. But emphatically and insistently remembering is just as necessary, for our own healing and growth but because that’s the only way to pass on the memory to those who follow us.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

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