Johnny L. Bertolio
Toronto - Remembrance Day, celebrated on November 11th, is usually associated with soldiers dead in the wars while completing their duties. However, there is another Day of Remembrance (Giornata della Memoria in Italian), one that was established the day when the Red Army arrived in Auschwitz and consequently “opened” the concentration camp that was to become the very symbol of the Holocaust.
For (not so) obvious reasons Italy and Germany are countries that more than others feel the responsibility of what happened during the second world war, and for them it is therefore imperative to organize public events to help their people remember.
But here is the issue: how do contemporary students, for whom most of those initiatives are organized, perceive them?
Do they realize that the Holocaust is not simply a fragment of a distant age, but should also be part of their personal historical memory? And not only in Europe, where their ancestors either died in the camps or, more sadly, might have supported the regimes that planned the genocide.
On January 27th, in class, I had post-secondary students from a language course read a passage from Primo Levi’s masterpiece, Se questo è un uomo (If this is a man).
Before starting with an introduction on the author and victim, and providing them with some historical background, I asked a preliminary question: what were concentration camps? Only one student (out of twenty) replied. Except for a few shy individuals, the others seemed to be hearing about the Holocaust for the first time.
I was quite surprised and thought that perhaps in their previous education they had not studied that period of history. But is it valid that they were not taught about it only because it happened in another continent?
“Your profound consternation mixed with indignation vanishes in the face of the question whether it is actually reprehensible or rather desirable that these young people no longer feel any guilt” – German author Christa Wolf wrote in 1976 with a polemic tone. Reprehensible or desirable: this is the question.
Clearly such a sense of guilt cannot be felt by Canada or the US, who fought against Nazi-fascism and contributed to its end. However, in light of what is happening these days across the boarder under a new banner of nationalism, we had all better study history and learn from it.
In order to be different, if not better.