Remembering the Holocaust

1 June, 2015
Ledoux Sébastien

Cet article a été publié avec le soutien de la Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.

The notion of memory of the Holocaust is understood in this article as encompassing any representation of or reference to the genocide of the Jews since the Second World War.

The Early Days

As soon as the Nazis began to implement their persecution and extermination policy against the Jews, the idea of employing testimonials and creating archives to preserve what was taking place in memory emerged in Jewish circles. As early as November 1940, Emanuel Ringelblum initiated the establishment of archives in the Warsaw ghetto (Kassow 2007), while Isaac Schneersohn formed a committee in Grenoble in April 1943 that later, in 1945, became the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine (CDJC) (Perego and Poznanski 2013). Many Jewish survivors published accounts of their experiences immediately after the War in an effort to avoid allowing what they had seen first-hand vanish into oblivion (Wieviorka 2000 [1992]). In parallel with these efforts, the many images of the liberation of the camps that were disseminated by the media ultimately provided a somewhat limited vision of the utter singularity of the Holocaust. The genocide of the Jews became diluted amid denunciations of the environment of the concentration camps, which were seen at the time as emblems of Nazi barbarity (Matard-Bonucci 2005). The genocide was not entirely neglected during the many national or international trials (i.e., Nuremberg) of Nazis and collaborators, but it tended to be relegated to the margins of proceedings that mostly focused on crimes against peace such as war crimes and treason, or, in the case of political purge trials, collaboration with the enemy (Brayard 2000).

Beginning in the 1980s, the 1950s and the late 1960s (the Six-Day War in 1967 is thought to signal the beginning a new period) came to be interpreted as a time of forgetting when memories of the Holocaust faded. Two explanations for this seeming collective amnesia were offered. The first was that Jews shrouded themselves in silence, repressing memories in a supposedly collective, post-traumatic response. The tendency among the various national institutions to dissimulate the genocide, instead emphasizing memories of resistance movements, further contributed to this period of generalized forgetting. The discourses of the elites as well as public opinion also reinforced a propensity to mask the genocide of the Jews (see Wieviorka 2000 [1992] regarding France; Kushner 1994 regarding Great Britain; and Novick 2000 regarding the United States).

A historiographic shift initiated by the historian Hasia Diner in the late 2000s began to this call this narrative into question, however. Diner’s perspective goes beyond a teleological vision of the memory of the Holocaust based on a diachronic opposition borrowed from psychoanalysis--“forgetting-memory” or “trauma/repression/return of the repressed”—and the problematic transfer of this opposition to a collective level. This new approach explores the diverse levels of memory of the Holocaust, identifying the groups involved and the individuals who represent them. It also evaluates the extent to which these representations are shared by different groups, processes of interaction involved (Rothberg 2009), and disparities between different chronologies among the various countries. (The Eichmann trial represented a turning point in Israel in 1961, for example, that is not necessarily generalizable to other countries). Although these questions were somewhat neglected by national policies and the media, research has shown that vivid memories persisted during this period within Jewish circles, undermining arguments that memories had become muted or silenced (see Diner 2009 regarding the United States; Jockush 2012 regarding Europe, including the activities of the CDJC in France; Cesarani and Sundquist 2012 regarding various case studies in Europe and the United States). One observation is that while Jewish organizations established public commemorations of the Holocaust by (Perego 2010), governments and public institutions from ministries to local communities gradually came to support commemorations of the genocide as well (Ledoux 2013). Memories of the Holocaust, although perhaps not widespread, were regularly referred to in Western societies (see Azouvi 2012 regarding France), not only due to public commemorations, but also because of high-profile trials such as the Eichmann trial in 1961 and the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965, artistic expression (literature, cinema, and theater), and public debates and controversies (see Moyn 2005 regarding the “the Treblinka affair” in 1966 in France). Although the Holocaust had not yet attained the high level of awareness that it subsequently reached, it demonstrably never disappeared entirely from the public’s awareness.

The “Memorialization” of the Holocaust (1970-1980)

The “memorialization” 1 of the Holocaust can be described as the integration of this historical past into the public narrative, apprehended independently of memories of the war itself and summoned in ways that inform both the present and the future. This process gradually emerged in the West in the 1970s and 1980s due to the interplay of a variety of factors.

The almost ubiquitous audiovisual media such as television and radio played a major role in broadcasting awareness of the singularity of the genocide, which came to be perceived as representing the consummate historical expression of inhumanity. The electronic media served as vectors of mass dissemination on an unprecedented scale, both through radio broadcasts of the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961 and via the intense media attention paid to the Barbie trial in France in 1987, which was in turn associated with televised broadcasts of Lanzmann’s film Shoah. This process was further reflected in television shows and series for the mass public such as Holocaust in the United States, Germany, and France in 1978 and 1979 (Maeck 2009). The media have been committed partners in the memorialization process, directly contributing to the status of the Holocaust as a “public issue.” Associated with the ever-present question of anti-Semitism, the lack of attention paid to the Holocaust by past national policies has been framed by the media as the result of an aberration that demands a political response (such as formal French acknowledgement of Vichy participation in the Final Solution).

In the 1970s, the “second generation”--children of deportees who identified themselves powerfully with their Jewish identity and with their role as “entrepreneurs of memory”2 -- encouraged government authorities to prioritize preserving and transmitting the memory of the Holocaust at the highest institutional levels (see, for example, Serge Klarsfeld’s influence via his association, the Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France, which he created in 1979). It is also important to underscore the impact of third parties from outside the Jewish community on increased support for preserving memory. Non-Jewish participation helped convey the idea that preserving Holocaust memory is a shared global heritage whose transmission across generations is in the interests of the all of the world’s peoples. Their participation has also helped the memorial movement avoid being perceived as promoting only its own sectarian interests.

Heightened awareness of the plight of Holocaust victims in Western societies helped mobilize international humanitarian assistance. Recognition that the global collective community had a duty to intervene to help “trauma” 3 victims also made it possible to develop a new interpretive framework that conceived of the psychological consequences of the Holocaust as both collective and individual. This shift was particularly influential in calling public attention to the narratives of witnesses/victims of the Holocaust who formed the core of an expanded vision and new, democratic ethos in the West grounded in human rights awareness and peaceful coexistence (Wieviorka 2009 [1998]). In the 1970s and to an even greater extent in the 1980s, these new ways of appropriating the past allowed the memory of the Holocaust to gradually become an integral part of the political and media agenda. Many influential figures from outside the Jewish community began to view the Holocaust as a common heritage with universal significance.

Whereas post-War trials targeting Nazi criminals and collaborators tended to relegate anti-Semitic crimes to the margins, trials in the 1970s and 80s placed Holocaust narratives firmly in the foreground by situating the genocide at the center of the allegations and charges against perpetrators. The new legal framework of genocide as an irredeemable crime against humanity facilitated this process. Most importantly, like the Eichmann trial in Israel (Rousso 2011; Cesarani 2005), these trials transcended the mere question of criminal responsibility. The trials became endowed with a specific mission by legal and political figures, as well as by the media and the intellectual elites—helping to spread the memory of the genocide of the Jews among the general population, particularly through the use of eyewitness narratives (see, for example, the Barbie trial in 1987 for France).

The Memory of the Holocaust as a Frame of Reference (1990-2000)

As the standard-bearer of new legal, political, and moral norms, Holocaust awareness prompted numerous public actions during the 1990s, including moves to offer reparations to the Jewish community and to ensure the future peaceful coexistence of national and supranational communities. The resulting policies took a range of forms, including compensation payments for plundered property and the disappearance of ancestors (Andrieu et al. 2007), 4 national and international Holocaust commemoration days 5 (see Clifford 2013 regarding France and Italy; Sharples and Jensen 2013 regarding Great Britain), formal institutional recognition for the Just (see Gensburger 2010 regarding France), memorial museums (see Young 1993 regarding the United States), and educational travel to extermination sites. Re-framed as a universal lesson to help build the twenty-first century 6 destined to be shared around the world, the memory of the Holocaust became associated with an educational mission that introduces universal civic and moral values, helping to recast what it can mean to younger generations growing up in multicultural societies as global citizens (see Oeser 2010 regarding Germany).

The memory of the Holocaust is becoming transformed into both a transnational “cosmopolitan memory” in an era of globalization (Lévy and Sznaider 2006) and a “referential framework” [cadre référentiel] (Lapierre 2007). It is cited as an example of past mass crimes, 7 but also as a tool for understanding more recent and even current mass crimes. The memorialization of the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda after 1994 (Kalisky 2004) is an excellent example of this phenomenon. The memory of the Holocaust also provides a model for other memorial groups staking claims as victims of prejudice or seeking to justify demands for reparations for specific historical events. Examples include the genocide of the Sinte and Roma peoples, which was memorialized as part of the Berlin memorial that opened in 2012 (see Asséo 2005 regarding France and Germany), and mass deportations of homosexuals (see Schlagdenhauffen 2011 regarding Germany, France, and the Netherlands), as well as slavery and the transatlantic slave trade in the United States and France.

Enshrining the memory of the Holocaust as a common good that embodies a universal moral code provoked strong reactions and controversies beginning in the late 1990s. Criticisms have included the allegation that creating a new moral conformism based on events in the past is not only vain but also impoverishes memory, ultimately obscuring the historical record rather than highlighting it (see Bensoussan 2003; Coquio 2003; and Kertesz 2000 regarding the experience of genocide). A number of critics have cited concerns about a saturation effect that could lead to a fixation on tragedy among victims and on morbid identification with the victims for others (see Jureit and Schneider 2010 regarding Germany). Criticisms have also been leveled against the rise of global Holocaust tourism involving extermination sites as well as memorial museums (Cole 1999). Certain critics have even alluded to the rise of a “Holocaust business.” 8

In addition to these arguments about the uses--and abuses--of the more recent, global aspirations of the memory of the Holocaust, scholarly attention has also focused on the modes of expression and retranslation of these transnational memories. Analyses of commemorative practices have described them variously as sites of bricolage, negotiation between individual memories, collective rituals, and national institutional frameworks (see Gensburger 2007 regarding the Just; see also Azria 2008 regarding the reading of the names of Jews deported from France).

Traces of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art

Memories of the Holocaust have clearly not been restricted to institutional and governmental expressions. As one of the most significant disruptions in the history of humanity, the genocide has also inspired a wealth of artistic expressions, some of them considered to be among the world’s most highly influential contemporary artworks. Many were created by witnesses who experienced the catastrophe first-hand, including Aharon Appelfeld, Imre Kertész, and Primo Levi in literature, Paul Celan in poetry, and Zoran Music in painting. Traces of the Holocaust also influenced artworks by members of the “second generation,” among them Lanzmann’s Shoah in cinema, the works of Christian Boltanski (Réserve in 1990, Personnes in 2010) and Jochen Gerz (Le monument invisible en 1990) in performance, Kamp through the theater troop Hotel Moderne (marionettes), Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the graphic novel, and in architecture, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. These artists have often disrupted the artistic norms in their respective fields of art, ultimately expanding the notion of memory to encompass post-memory (Hirsch 2012).

Translated from the French by John Angell


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  • 1. Denis Peschanski. 2013. “Introduction.” In D. Peschanski (Ed.) Mémoire et memorialization. Paris: Hermann. p. 7.
  • 2. Michael Pollak. 1993. Une identité blesse. Paris: Metailié. p 30.
  • 3. See also an analysis by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman. 2007. L’Empire du traumatisme. Enquête sur la condition de victime. Paris: Flammarion.
  • 4. See, for example, the “Mission Mattéoli” in France between 1997 and 2000.
  • 5. In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted January 27 as the “International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.”
  • 6. See the proceedings of the 2000 Intergovernmental Conference in Stockholm.
  • 7. Among other examples, the Claude Lanzmann film Shoah was shown in Nanjing in 2004 to evoke the massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese by Japanese troops in 1937.
  • 8. Norman Finkelstein. 2000. The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. London: Verso.

Cite this item

Ledoux Sébastien, Remembering the Holocaust, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 1 June, 2015, accessed 27/04/2020,, ISSN 1961-9898
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