I was 14, maybe 15, the first time I visited the then recently-opened Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. My classmates and I awaited our turn to receive our individual photo passport cards, each featuring the face and the name of a child who experienced the Holocaust. As we moved through the museum we would be able to periodically check in on our child, our teacher told us, and then at the end we would learn whether they survived.
I can’t remember my child’s name or provenance, only that she was around the same age as me and she survived. I felt relief, even a sense of hope, and then it all quickly transformed to guilt. I was there to observe the horror and destruction, to bear witness to what happens when evil has access to power. She may have lived, but the story here was mass murder, and that is what I had to remember. The instructions were clear: Never forget so this never happens again.
“Never again” never happened. Well at least not in its wider application beyond Jews. As Samantha Power wrote about in her book “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” more than one U.S. president uttered these very words on Holocaust remembrance days, and then failed to see them through.
While the gut-wrenching recent kidnappings of the schoolgirls in Nigeria don’t constitute genocide, they serve as yet another example of the disappointing fallibility of “never again.”
Still, those words continue to echo through the minds of those of us raised in an era of institutionalized yet casual Holocaust remembrance. (I say casual because the Shoah was far enough in the past to have already been transformed into a source of sepia-toned lessons. Time had softened the sting felt by the previous generation — the children of survivors — by the time it reached us.)
Our purpose, we were told, was not to help heal wounds, but to be the custodians of the legacy, a legacy built on our vow to each other and ourselves that this had to be the suffering to end all sufferings. We had to do this by first making sense of what happened, and then making sure it never happened again.