On the eve of setting off for the Nazi death camps of German-occupied Poland, I feel rather apprehensive. Not about what I might see: Given the massive literature and media saturation of the Holocaust, we in the West have all “seen” these sites in one form or another, through one medium or another. Of course, nothing can replace being physically present in these sites, to personally touch the very structures that encased the broken humanity those savage months and years, to listen with my own ears to the earth that entombed the silenced voices of the gassed, to breathe in the very air that took the souls of so many. All this I anticipate, perhaps even eagerly. I finally will have a chance to experience in person what I have only read or watched from the comfort of my armchair.
No, what I feel most apprehensive about is how I could become so maudlin that I lose all my critical and analytical faculties, that I would allow myself to revel in a kind of false catharsis that absolves no one and teaches no one. Genocides happened before the Holocaust and continue to take place today. We can’t afford to live in the past. The Holocaust warns us of how deadly it is to incorporate deep-seated hatred of the other into a delusional ideology of purity. This is hardly unique to the Holocaust; waves upon waves of genocidal madness that plagued the last century and that still plague us today make that abundantly clear. For me, the Holocaust remains a garish warning beacon, and I don’t want its clarity obscured by my teary eyes.