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.
We immersed ourselves in the horror the best we could. We went to museums, watched films, read books, and listened with a mixture of befuddlement, anger and awe as survivors told us of crowded trains and lifted their sleeves to reveal the faded numbers on their forearms. And we uttered, possibly more often than the Sh’ma, “Never again. Never again.”
Sometimes it was traumatizing, but more often it was a source of comfort. “Never again” gave us an identity, a mode of being that was both noble and radical.
But the unspeakable kept happening, and it keeps happening. Two hundred girls ripped from their desks while trying to take exams. Claims they will be sold as wives — a more honest description would be sex slaves — by the leader of Boko Haram, the anti-Western, anti-female militant Islamist insurgency who kidnapped them.
We’re all good people. We want to help. So we tweet and post articles and express our outrage. #Bringbackourgirls. I do all this too, though through it all I keep wondering if I’m living up to the task given to me as a child: to fight for a world of “never again.”
There is room for some optimism here. A hope that in the age of social media, the world can no longer remain ignorant and leaders can no longer be held unaccountable for atrocities committed elsewhere. Internet activism does not always lead to change, but it does help educate people and that is a necessary first step.
This time we are not only discussing the kidnapped girls, but also the rising violence in Nigeria, the inadequately prepared soldiers who are supposed to fight off the militants, and even the issue of gender-based violence. If those girls are indeed sold, they will add to the over 2 million girls exploited in the commercial sex trade, and the 64 million girls married as child brides around the world. Us Jews could also take this occasion to revisit the presence of gender-based violence in the Holocaust, which was long ignored or denied by mainstream historians.
We’re also reminded of the importance of educating girls, which the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof says is the best way for fighting extremism. He explains that an increase in educated women helps curb birthrates, which leads to future stability, and also helps grow the economy by doubling the workforce. As we wait for the girls to be returned, the hope is that we will activate and renew our commitment to educating ourselves about these matters and then doing what we can to prevent this type of violence.
Though even with this hope there is still the fact that one more thread has been pulled in the fraying fabric of “never again.” For me, this might just be the moment in time when I reckon with the fact that I will continue to fight for justice, but no longer within this Holocaust context. The legacy remains; gone are the outsized expectations.
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.