From Nabokov's short story Signs and Symbols:
"Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths...until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about."
This fragment - from a story written three years after the liberation of Auschwitz - still stands up as one of the most powerful descriptions of the Holocaust in all fiction. The Jewish matriarch described here does duty for all the victims, all those Jews whose fate involved a head-on collision between the quotidian and the monstrous: One moment an old woman brooding in an armchair about such things as old women brood about in armchairs, the next a corpse among a log pile of other corpses in a gas chamber in Poland. In a world like ours where a single death is a tragedy and a thousand deaths is a hashtag, Holocaust Memorial Day - 27 January - was a chance for us to remember that The Six Million is more than just a collective noun: Here were six million individual tragedies, six million individual stories- stories just like Aunt Rosa's- six million individual lives, each one of them truncated by homicidal antisemitism.
In 2015 the need to take a day, an hour from a day, even a few minutes from an hour, to reflect on the Holocaust is perhaps more urgent than ever. Jewish blood is once again trickling into gutters on the streets of Europe, with a predatory and antisemitic ideology- in the form of Islamism- openly selecting and targeting Jews for execution. Holocaust denial remains at large on the far right and enjoys state-sanctioned patronage at the highest levels across Arabdom and the wider Muslim world. As always, it's ironic that those who deny the gas chambers would be the first to rebuild them.
Since the UK's first Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001, the simple act of setting aside one day a year to remember the Jewish dead has, predictably, been cluttered by controversy. Muslim and leftist organizations throw their noisy annual wobble over whether or not to participate, citing a lack of "inclusivity" or some other captiously contrarian nonsense. We reached peak lunacy in this respect in 2014, when the National Union of Students' Goldsmiths' chapter voted down a motion in remembrance of the Holocaust as "Eurocentric" and "colonialist." The radical left is yet to acquire the far right's comfort in denying the extermination outright, so the next best thing is to relativize or contextualize it out of existence, usually by means of fatuous analogies with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Offensive moral equivalencies between the plight of the Palestinians and the fate of the Jews are now sprinkled like a condiment over virtually every online discussion about the Holocaust. Bearing in mind their tragic history, so the standard line has it, the Jews should know better. And anyway, the Jews weren't the only ones who suffered. What about the Roma? What about the Jehovah's Witnesses? What about the Poles? What about the Russians? What about Gaza? What was so unique about the Holocaust that we should only remember the Jews?
Abstractly, of course, the Holocaust was far from unique: It does us little credit as a species to consider that Hitler's genocide was only one among many 20th Century meshuga mega-disasters consciously and willfully inflicted by man upon man. Rather, what the Holocaust represents is the capstone of a unique tradition: Antisemitism, a prejudice quite without precedent in its intensity and ubiquity, and unique also inasmuch as it's the only prejudice which is at the same time a comprehensive ideology, a prefabricated world-view in its own right (to be sure, many forms of racism are ideological, but only antisemitism offers a complete political cosmology, a universal explanation for every woe). The Holocaust should be remembered- and remembered uniquely- as the continent-wide climax of an ancient hatred taken to its logical and very modern (industrialized) conclusion.
With the possible exception of the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust is also the only supernumerary slaughter which has to file and serve a detailed defence against particularized claims of denial and/or relativistic revisionism. The six million are never allowed to leave the witness box; they are to be posthumously cross-examined, questioned, exhibited as evidence, doubted, derided, probed relentlessly by unforgiving prosecuting counsel. From the public gallery, the ghost of Hitler would approve. It's axiomatic to point out that the first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves, even as the Holocaust was in full swing. In an obiter comment made during the first of his famous Posen speeches of 1943, Himmler himself hinted at the great crime at the heart of the Nazi Empire, a crime which was at all costs to be kept secret: The annihilation of European Jewry, he said, "is a glorious chapter in our history that has not and will not be spoken of." True enough, they rarely spoke about it. Instead, oddly, they wrote about it: Recorded it, inventoried it, filed it, documented it, glossed it and rubber-stamped it with the bland vocabulary of double-entry bookkeeping. We are all familiar with the euphemisms: Millions of men, women, and children were "units" (einheiten) to be "processed" (verarbeitet) by means of "special treatment" (sonderbehandlung). Norman Finkelstein's otherwise nasty little book The Holocaust Industry inadvertently tells a terrible truth in its title: This really was an industry, with an industrial logic all its own. Even as the war approached its end- with the Reich imploding under the combined armed might of the rest of the world- infrastructure, resources, and manpower that might have been better deployed in the defence of Germany were instead obsessively expended on the business of turning human beings into ashes. As Clive James observes in Cultural Amnesia, it's clear that for the Nazis the war that really mattered was the war against the Jews.
Around the same time as Nabokov was writing Signs and Symbols, Martin Heidegger- whose muddled relationship with antisemitism is another story- identified the Holocaust as the ne plus ultra of technocratism: The Dark Satanic Mills of one hundred and fifty years earlier were no longer a baleful poetic metaphor, they had been reified by the Nazis into actual human abattoirs, with the Jews who perished therein denied not just life, but, worse, denied an authentic death ("mere quanta, liquidated inconspicuously"). Seen in this context, Holocaust Memorial Day is not so much about remembering the dead as about reminding ourselves that those who died were once alive, and that their lives were extinguished, taken, thieved, purely and straightforwardly because they were Jews. In the words of Larkin's Aubade (only this time we are contemplating not just one death, our inevitable own, but the six million deaths of six million others) the mind blanks at the glare. Never forget.
It's interesting that we've framed that mantra as a negative injunction these past seventy years- Never Forget- rather than as a positive commandment- Always Remember- as if, somehow, we knew from the outset we'd have to defend the memory of the Jewish dead against those who would doubt, slander, desecrate, and deny: And, perhaps, against those who might actively want to forget, and forget with the best of intentions. Nabokov again, from Pnin (the narrator recalls his lover, deported by the Nazis and put to death on arrival in the east):
"One had to forget- because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart I had so often heard beating under my lips in the dusk of the past."