The month of April involves dangerous and sad memories. On April 7, we remember the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. April 19 is a day of remembrance for Jews who perished during the Holocaust. And on April 24, we remember the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Why remember? What would the future development of the human person be without memory? Memory is so fundamental to our identity as human beings that we cannot function without it. To be human is to be largely marked by our capacity to remember. Upon visiting Yad Vashem (Israel Memorial Monument), I came to understand that the State of Israel remembers the six million murdered Jews to make it clear that the Holocaust did not happen in darkness but in broad daylight and to understand that each victim reveals the extent of the loss. Israel safeguards the memory of the Jews to show the world that they mattered. According to Paul Ricoeur, memory arises in the manner of affection: we partly remember because there is a particular love or hate associated with the thing remembered . In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle remarks that we are indebted to those who have gone before us as part of what we are , and we keep their memories. Aristotle underlines that the human person’s memory allows us to have respect for others and to pay their dues, which leads to justice.
Considering the origin of the concept of “memory” and hence “the Hebraic term Zakhor, it is noteworthy that it means not only "you will remember" but "you will continue to tell, to recount, to testify,” writes Ricoeur . The answer to why we remember crimes like genocides is simple, yet imperative. It is “because such past events do not belong to the past … Past occurrences of genocide do not belong to the past but are, on the contrary, extremely current. They have shaped our societies into post-genocidal societies in which the trauma of these genocides is very much present,” according to Caroline Fournet . The call to remembrance is not just about turning toward the past. It is also an injunction to the present and to future global development. Former French President Jacques Chirac is reported to have said in 2005, “to remember is to be present. But it is also to act and to act, today and tomorrow, is to build a society in which this monstrous and criminal enterprise will simply be unthinkable” .
The duty of remembrance or devoir de mémoire as the French call it, can function as an attempted exorcism in an historical situation marked by conflict and abuse. Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust and Nobel Prize winner, notes that “memory creates bonds rather than destroying them, bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups … it is because I refuse to forget that [other people’s] future is as important as my own” . Even Yahweh commanded the Israelites to remember: “remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Deut 5:15; 15:15; 24:18; 24:22). “Remember to sanctify the Sabbath” (Ex 20:8). Their memory was to be a reason for celebration of what Yahweh had done for them, and at the same time, a responsibility not to be held back by the bonds of slavery.
To lose the memory of the past century’s tragic history is to fail to expose the truth behind history. It is to found human development on sand. It is like having a book, removing a page, and then another the following day, and in the end, there is only a cover with nothing inside. The memory is finished, with no curiosity, and no regret. Catholic social thought and people of good will must continue to shout, in the words of Wiesel: “World, do not forget, it is foolish to kill, it is foolish to hate. To use the creative energy of the human person and to transform it into evil and crime is foolish. Do not forget, it is for your life and for ours” .
In light of the challenges our global community has faced this winter and spring: the Kenya Garissa tragedy, Yemen crisis, Tunisian and Paris events, among many others, keeping memory prevents us from giving room and time to the enemy of humanity to fortify and reenergize himself. Keeping memory allows us to realize that while it takes time to rebuild infrastructure, it takes even longer to mend hearts, minds, lives, and fractured hopes. I hope we can seriously put up mechanisms so that the “Never Again” which the United Nations voiced after the Holocaust is indeed "Never Again," because so far it has been “Another Again.”
Keeping memory entails responsibility to protect and to intervene to save lives. It involves justice. It counteracts genocide denials or memory assassins. It is imperative to ask ourselves why the Bible begins with the horrible story of two brothers (Cain and Abel) in which one kills the other. It is probably to teach us something. First, we can be brothers and yet we can hate one another, and we can kill one another. Second and more importantly, every time a person is killed, it is my brother who is killed. Unfortunately, we have still to learn this lesson!
An inspiring example is Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, well-known for his opposition to the Armenian Genocide. Morgenthau confronted the Turkish authorities about the Armenian killings taking place in major cities and in the Syrian desert. One of the officials asked Morgenthau: “Why are you interested in the Armenians anyway? You are Jew and these people are Christians?” Morgenthau responded: “You do not seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew, but as an American ambassador. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion, but merely as a human being.” Morgenthau demonstrated that standing up for truth takes courage. It puts you out in front as a potential target for serious criticism. But it is worth the effort. This is why memory remains imperative for future development.
- Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 17.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), 140.
- Paul Ricoeur, “Académie Universelle des Cultures,” quoted. in Fournet, The Crime of Destruction and the Law of Genocide, xxx.
- Caroline Fournet, The Crime of Destruction and the Law of Genocide: Their Impact on Collective Memory (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), xxx.
- The French version is as follows: “Se souvenir, c’est être là. Mais c’est aussi agir … Agir, aujourd’hui et demain, c’est construire une société dans laquelle cette entreprise, monstrueuse et criminelle sera simplement impensable.” See «Jacques Chirac, Discours Prononcé lors de l’Inauguration de la Nouvelle Exposition du Pavillon d’Auschwitz le 27 janvier 2005, » in Libération, January 27, 2005.
- Elie Wiesel, From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Summit, 1990), 201.
- Elie Wiesel, Eloge de la Mémoire to Pourquoi se Souvenir? Edited by Académie Universelle des Cultures, “(Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1998), 290.