Conscience and Memory: Meditations in a Museum of the Holocaust
by Harold Kaplan
University of Chicago Press, 1994
Cloth: 978-0-226-42416-3
Library of Congress Classification D804.3.K36 1994
Dewey Decimal Classification 940.5318

ABOUT THIS BOOK | AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY | TOC
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Prompted by the suicides of Jean Amery and Primo Levi, Harold Kaplan sought to ask what the Holocaust can be said to affirm even even in the face of its overwhelming negation of meaning. "I wrote this book," he explains, "to translate the Holocaust out of the moral and intellectual shock which contemplates the alienation of humanity from itself. I wished to understand the 'crime against humanity' as a viable category of the moral reason. And I wished to respond to the written testimony of Holocaust victims and survivors as if the issue of their survival were present to us today."

Kaplan simulates the response to a long visit to the new Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., which, crucially for Kaplan, is sited in direct view of the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments, powerful symbols of humanist democracy. He insists the Holocaust be viewed not only in terms of personal ethics but modern political ethics as well: for Kaplan the affirmative legacy of the Holocaust is its focus on the dangers of nationalism, racism, and all forms of separatist group identities. It challenges the historicism, cults of power, and scientistic politics of modernity. And it challenges the moral passivity and relativism of mass politics in Western and Eastern societies.

The opening of the Holocaust museum has sparked a debate that reflects a larger debate over the Holocaust's "meaning," its translatability for ordinary understanding. Some deny any possible response except that of overwhelming grief and horror. For others, the "lesson" of the Holocaust implies, in the words of Robert Nozick, that "mankind has fallen. . . . Humanity has lost its claim to continue." The moral life and political institutions will remain endlessly tormented by the Holocaust. That, Kaplan tells us, is the ultimate content of its "meaning," and is what makes the discussion of "meaning" much more than a mourner's symposium.

The Museum itself, according to Kaplan, has become an impressive memorial to the principle of humanism, instructing the collective memory of this democracy and that of nations everywhere which aspire to civil existence. Out of its awful darkness the Holocaust throws the light of conscience for those capable of receiving it.

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