Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Genocide memory and commemoration: remembering the Holocaust and the effects of the “hierarchy of suffering” 70 years later (part 1 of 2)


By Zahava Moerdler 

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As in the past, world leaders and survivors gathered in Auschwitz for a commemorative ceremony. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the Auschwitz museum, said, “Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did.” However, Auschwitz and the camps were merely one example of the many killing methods employed by the Nazis during World War II. Despite this, Auschwitz has come to reside at the epicenter of Holocaust memory and has consequently impacted the transitional justice and legal efforts that followed the liberation of the camps.

Raphael Lemkin invented the concept of “genocide” and pursued the creation of the Genocide Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He hoped his efforts would prevent further genocide. Unfortunately, genocide persists today. Like Auschwitz for the Holocaust, certain memory narratives have become the central story for other genocides. This trend affects reconciliation, healing and even prosecution in the aftermath of genocide. Analyzing the role the concentration camps played in Holocaust memory may prove useful for formulating tools in order to help survivors of other genocides be heard.

The process of national memory formation is critical to the way certain narratives are popularized over others. For example, one of the key scenarios that transmit value systems and beliefs is the Protestant Ethic, which encourages the good Protestant to work hard and through his hard work to can gain access to heaven. This American narrative, which is prominent in everyday life, contains a moral lesson for society. Once contained in the collective memory, the culture then glorifies these values because they reinforce what is deemed important. A society will remember certain things selectively, partially or instrumentally because that culture decides what to commemorate based on a certain value system. These chosen values will then be conserved in sites of memory, which act as containers. To understand sites of memory one must understand the values of the society when these containers were created. These underlying conceptual frameworks create the basis for the way memory is shaped.

One of the main themes of Holocaust memory and commemoration is the concept of “the hierarchy of suffering.” This concept pushed testimony and stories that perpetuated the narratives of those who survived the camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory, thus making it difficult for individuals with alternative narratives to speak and be heard. Anthropologist Carol Kidron documents this idea while observing a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust at a Holocaust-survivor center and museum in Israel. When a discussion with families of survivors opens, Tsipi, the founder of the center, talks about her mother who went into hiding during the war, “thereby positioning her parent and herself on the ‘hierarchy of suffering,’ known at the center as ‘Tsipi’s ladder of suffering’”:

“[…] Children of ‘hard core’ camp survivors heckled her story, screaming, ‘You think that’s suffering, that’s a vacation.’ Another participant introduced himself as a descendant of a ghetto survivor. Again, others screamed, ‘Ghetto, what’s a ghetto—it’s just the third grade [Heb. kita gimmel, G is for ghetto].’ The participant was allowed to recount his mother’s fragmented tale of fear and hunger, again adding his avowal of pride in her ability to start a new life. Another participant told of her parent’s experiences as a partisan. She could not get through her first sentence without being shouted down: ‘No, no, you’re not even on the ladder,’ at which point Tsipi added, ‘Yes, you don’t belong to the sheep.’”

Shortly after this encounter another member of the group circle recounts how his father survived Auschwitz, and suddenly the “mood in the room had shifted smoothly from laughter to serious attention.”

This is merely one story, from one support group, however it is indicative of a general trend. The “hierarchy of suffering” extends beyond the way national memory is created. Survivors who do not fit the collective memory mold are not heard. Those with more traumatic narratives, particularly those from the camps, take center stage. I believe this trend coincides with the way humans rank and compartmentalize trauma and suffering. When the child of an Auschwitz survivor wanted to speak the room immediately fell silent, however, when the child of a partisan wanted to recount her parent’s narrative, she could not even get past her first sentence. This is the problem with the hierarchy of suffering. It devalues personal traumatic events.

Memory is not just created by the prioritization of certain suffering, but also by how history has been chronicled. Oral testimonies from survivors and perpetrators and documents from the government and camps comprised the majority of evidentiary support available after the Holocaust. Additionally, the camps were liberated by Allied forces, whose soldiers bore witness to the effects of camps on survivors. Even before the end of the war, the Allies created commissions to locate and collect the vast of amounts of documents from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. These documents were then used in the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and were later stored in the Bad Arolsen archive in Germany. However, documents about the death camps, such as Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, were mostly destroyed before the end of the war and there are no documents available about the Einsatzgruppen murders in the former Soviet Union. The lopsided preservation of documentation helped push the concentration camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory.

National memory trends also affect efforts concerning restitution and reconciliation. From the immediate postwar period on, the hierarchy of suffering impacted monetary compensation. For example, most programs that compensated survivors provided for those in forced labor camps or who were deported, while only a few programs compensated for material losses, those who fled and those who were “hidden children.” For example, the Claims Conference has a highly specified approach and a tiered system, which provides a one time “Hardship Fund” for those who fled Nazism as opposed to a continuous pension service for survivors of the concentration and labor camps.

Beyond this, the Nuremberg Trials, and especially the International Military Tribunal, were focused predominantly on war crimes, not victims. Justice Jackson, the lead prosecutor for the Americans at Nuremberg, wanted aggressive war making to be considered the most heinous crime committed by the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the prosecution at Nuremberg emphasized the crimes committed by military leaders that led to a globalized war and marginalized crimes against humanity. The focus at Nuremberg contrasts strongly to the 1961 Eichmann Trial, where the focus moved from documentary evidence to witness testimony, marking a change in Holocaust memory as victim narratives became more accepted and prominent. The trial gave survivors legitimacy and a space where their stories would not be questioned but would rather be broadcasted around the world.

As survivors aged, and became better situated in their new homes, new forms of restitution arose. In the 1990s, vast movements of class action suits, involving survivors with different narratives, began against various governments and institutions like the German, Austrian and Swiss banks. While some of the litigation arose from survivors of forced labor camps, other claims, particularly looted art and bank account or insurance restitution claims, were brought by a more diverse group of survivors. Litigation can only give a measure of justice for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators; however, the restitution projects coincided with increased awareness and memorialization of the Holocaust.

Recognition of all Holocaust narratives has allowed many survivors who were once silent to give testimony to projects like the Shoah Foundation and to open up to their children and grandchildren about their experiences. By telling their stories, survivors are able to heal. The inclusivity also marks a change in American culture in recent decades. The rise of “victimhood culture,” in the 1990s has bolstered support for an inclusive narrative from the core of the American value system.

In my next post, I will analyze how these narratives and trends can affect the way we understand memory of other genocides.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit:  Jaime Pérez/Creative Commons

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

2 thoughts on “Genocide memory and commemoration: remembering the Holocaust and the effects of the “hierarchy of suffering” 70 years later (part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Genocide memory and commemoration in Rwanda and Cambodia: combating government sanctioned and silenced memory (part 2 of 2) | Rights Wire

  2. Pingback: FILM REVIEW: Watchers of the Sky | Rights Wire

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