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  • Conflations of Memoryor, What They Saw at the Holocaust Museum after 9/11
  • Michael Bernard-Donals (bio)

As visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm) leave the permanent exhibit, they find an open, loose-leafed binder, in which they are invited to write comments about what they saw. Many of them do so, sometimes leaving a single word or sentence, and sometimes covering an entire page with writing, attempting in one way or another to make clear what they have just experienced. These visitors act as witnesses to the chronology of the Holocaust, and see visual representations of some of the atrocities committed immediately before and during the Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe. But what they testify to—and what they remember—is often a curious conflation of memories, one that involves impossible connections between the events of the Holocaust and other events sometimes only tangentially related to it. In their complexity, these comments reveal that far from using the narrative of the Holocaust as a "screen memory" (using Freud's term) for other (absent) events,1 these visitors frequently see the "events of the world"—and in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001 those events and those taking place in Afghanistan were [End Page 73] very much on the minds of visitors to the ushmm—as screen memories for the Holocaust.

In the next several pages, I will describe this conflation of memories as it makes itself visible in the comments left by visitors to the Holocaust Museum in the wake of the events of the fall and winter of 2001–2002. I will argue that this conflation of memories is due in part to the design of the museum itself, which began as a site of memory but evolved, in the meetings of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, into a didactic exhibit meant to create memories in a very particular context of Holocaust "seeing." But more interestingly, visitors' use of contemporary events as screens for their understanding of the Holocaust is due to what I will call "forgetful memory," in which aspects of events seen but not remembered insinuate themselves into individual and cultural memories so well wrought as to be (presumably) hermetic. The strands of collective and individual memory as they are shot through with forgetfulness produce something altogether different from memory as such: a memory effect that—like Walter Benjamin's flash of memory at the moment of danger—causes the viewer to see something that eludes memory, and that is nonetheless related to the real.2 It is this memory effect that may provide the viewer with a kind of memorial agency that—contrary to what Stjepan Mestrovic calls a "post-emotional inertia" in the face of the culture (or memory) industry—prevents a conflation of memory from becoming an endless cycle of memorial repetition, in which the Holocaust becomes 9/11, and atrocities simply stand in for one another.3 The upshot of this analysis may be that we have paid too much attention in recent years to the ways memories make present—or represent—a past, and have not paid enough attention to how aspects of memory intervene in and make possible a future. I think it is possible to say that the ushmm's permanent exhibit does not produce memories; it produces witnesses. But just what did these witnesses see? Ultimately, even the witnesses themselves cannot say, and it is this spontaneity of seeing—a kind of uncontrollable witnessing that is not easily integrated into the narrative of either the Holocaust or the "events of 9/11"—that shows forgetfulness as a positive aspect of memory-making.4 [End Page 74]

Memory and Forgetfulness at the USHMM

In "Collective Memory and Historical Consciousness," the historian Amos Funkenstein (1993) argues that memory as retrieval—as the sometimes unbidden glimpse of events that had for all other purposes been taken as lost—always becomes insinuated into the fabric of knowledge, in the language and symbolic systems of a culture that individuals take for granted (5). Yet memories of even the most personal kind also indicate something that has fallen outside...


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