It has been seventeen years since my friend Leon Wieseltier wrote an essay, “After Memory,” for the The New Republic to commemorate the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, TNR had a problem with its electronic archives a few years back, and you may need to trot to the library stacks to find it. It will be worth the effort.
Wieseltier wrote about the difference between memory and history. Memory is palpable, it hurts or it comforts, but it reaches to our emotions. In the case of the Holocaust, it is a deliverance to be freed from memory if one is a survivor, but for the rest of us, the call to memory is a profound moral obligation. History is anaesthetized memory. It reaches to our intellect, it can and must be researched and analyzed. It, too, is vital regarding an event like the Holocaust, but its career is different from memory. Regarding the Shoah, there can be no deliverance from history. Wieseltier also called attention to what is the most heart-wrenching exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. It is not the photos of piled corpses, but the room that contains photographs of a Jewish community before the Holocaust, pictures that show young lovers about to kiss for the first time, a young buy learning Torah from his rabbi, a family gathered for a celebration. Pictures of life and of lives, all of which were lost when, on one evil day, the Nazis exterminated the inhabitants of the town.
I recall Leon’s article whenever I walk through the battlefield at Gettysburg. Some of the monuments list the names of those in a given regiment who were killed, others only give the numbers of killed and wounded. I do not like the latter monuments. Those dead had names. They had lives. They had loves. I cannot relate to, still less remember, a number, but those dead had loved ones who remembered them.
Memorial Day is not a day for history but a day for memory. And, if you do not know personally anyone who gave his or her life in service of the nation, read about a person who did. Today is not a day to think about “all those who died” but to think about the individual, human lives, lives with stories, with families, with hopes and dreams, all of which were laid on the altar of the nation.