A woman called the other day with a question. It had to do with the plans to create a memorial to the Holocaust down near the Mall and what she wanted to know, more or less, is why the Memorial had to be housed in buildings donated by the government--or, to put in another way, what did the Holocaust have to do with the United States? Good question.
In fact, it was such a good question that offhand I could not answer it--not answer it, at least, the way it was put. I could not, for instance, tell her why the memorial deserved to be near the Mall and not, as she suggested, at the United Nations. Nor could I tell her why the United States, almost uniquely among nations, planned to have a memorial to a crime to which it contributed neither the criminals nor the victims.
But afterward I remembered a lunch I once had with a close friend in which we discussed the Holocaust and in which my friend said, "You know, if I were Jewish I don't think I could believe in God." That stopped me, not because expressions of atheism offend me, but because here was a pal, someone totally without prejudice, who viewed the Holocaust as something that had absolutely nothing to do with her. She saw it, to use the current lingo, as something about Jews or maybe about Germans and Jews, but not about people, people in general, which is to say about her.
Of course, the Holocaust is about Jews and it is about Germans, too. And it is also about Gypsies who died in the extermination camps in great numbers (18,946 at Auschwitz) and about Poles and Russians and Communists and homosexuals and intellectuals and, had the Nazis won and had there been an eventually, maybe all the Slav peoples. And by extension and a kinship in horror, it is also about the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks and the slaughter of the Cambodians by the Cambodians and even, if you will, the killing by blacks in Miami of a white because he was white and the killing in New York by whites of a black because he was black.
The Holocaust, in other words, is about what people have done to people and, by application of historical precedent, what people can do to people. The Holocaust, for all its numbers and for all its horrific dimensions, is not something special, something set aside, a break with what went before and what would follow, but part of a continuum. It is the ultimate example of irrational horror, but ultimate only in scale--not because it is the last. Just as there were mass killings before it, there were others after it and, you can be sure, others to come.
In this sense, then, the Holocaust is a universal. But it is also a specific. It did not, after all, happen to mankind, but to a particular part of mankind, European Jews. And it did not arise out of nowhere, suddenly and without warning, but only after 1,000 years of hate and bigotry, of blood libel and pogroms and restrictive laws and ghettos and eruptions of homicide, like the mass slaughter of Ukrainian Jews by Cossacks and peasants in the 17th century. An episode like that could be compared to the genocide of the Armenians but when compared with the Holocaust it becomes a mere asterisk, a precursor that gets overshadowed by a bigger event, like the death of an ordinary person in the crash that takes the life of a celebrity. The plain fact is that there has never been anything like the Holocaust. Never.
And so, yes, the Holocaust was not an American event and, yes, the victims were not Americans and, sure, America has had awful events of its own to memorialize--slavery, the virtual extirpation of the American Indian, the wartime incarceration of the Japanese and even, if you will, the refusal to bomb Auschwitz and end by death the deaths. But we are people and those who died in the Holocaust were people and so it is neither wrong nor weird that we should memorialize them on the Mall and build a monument in both stone and programs to their memory.
Not because America had any role in the Holocaust.
Not even so it never can.
Not because it is the least we can do.
But because it is all we can do.