Tom Sutcliffe: Will time ease the pain of the Holocaust?

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When, I wonder, will the Holocaust no longer hurt? Today, Holocaust Memorial Day, might not be thought to be the most tactful date on which to put this question – which assumes, in its phrasing, that such a state of affairs will eventually come about. Today, after all, is dedicated to postponing such a state of affairs, a day which exists because of the belief that remembering (and hurting) shouldn't have an expiry date.

So I should perhaps explain more carefully what I mean. It isn't that we're anywhere close to forgetting the Holocaust, or thinking it negligible. Only that it seems inevitable that our emotional connection will eventually undergo an evolution. And by "we" I don't mean you and me, but those generations that follow us.

An example might help. Imagine that Steven Spielberg has been moved to make a film about the Biblical Exodus. It would, I suggest, be virtually impossible for it to generate the same directly felt sorrow that Schindler's List evoked in its viewers.

Alternatively, imagine the distinction between a documentary about Waterloo and a film about the Somme. One, however detailed its account of individual suffering, is likely to strike us as temporally insulated from us, while the other can still pierce us with a surprising intimacy. And these differences are not to do with the magnitude of the suffering involved – but the sense that the more proximate events are directly part of our history (possibly family history) rather than history in general.

Some would argue that the Holocaust has no half-life: that it is exempt from this universal law of historical fading. Elie Weisel once wrote: "The Holocaust is unique, not just another event ... [it] transcends history." This seems a hazardous contention – because if the Holocaust is "unique", it would be easy to argue that it is, by definition, unrepeatable – and that remembering should be a religious duty for Jews rather than a secular duty for everyone.

But if he's wrong, as I think he is, another significant question arises. What kind of memory will the Holocaust become when all of us, and all our children too, are dead? Will it slowly metamorphose into an exclusively Jewish event – a marker of identity and origin, in much the way that the Exodus is now ritualised (without a sharply present sense of pain). Or will it crystallise into one of those odd and dangerously volatile hybrids of historical specificity and undiminished grievance – such as the Field of Blackbirds is for nationalistic Serbs or the death of Ali is for devout Shia Muslims? I hope it isn't the latter.

Peter Novick, whose book The Holocaust and Collective Memory is wonderfully thoughtful about this subject, includes a wise remark by Leon Wieseltier about the dangers of artificially sustaining a sense of pain and victimhood. "In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound."

It's a reminder that hurt – so easy to treat as the only reliable marker of sincere feeling – may be at odds with healing. One hopes that even in a thousand years people will still remember and think about the Holocaust. But we shouldn't expect or want them to weep too.

BBC is damned if it does, damned if it does not

I may be regarded as hopelessly parti pris when it comes to the BBC, since I present a weekly arts programme for the broadcaster. But even I can see that its decision not to screen the DEC Gaza appeal was probably an error of judgement. It does seem worth pointing out, however, given the general howl of indignation, that it wasn't a wicked or careless error. The DEC appeal has probably received more publicity as a result of the BBC's decision not to screen the film than it would have done if they'd put it out. And on the level of corporate governance, this wasn't a matter of a Corporation arrogantly indifferent to its public duties or thoughtlessly offending public sentiment. It was a case of it attempting to defend a value which – on a different day – it might equally well be excoriated for having failed to protect.

The BBC in some respects is like an abused child – whipped at one moment for doing something and whipped an hour later for failing to do it. So it's hardly astounding that now and then it flinches before it's even hit. There's little point in whining about this – it's part of the price the organisation pays for its centrality in British life (and the privilege of the licence fee) but it would be nice if the pontificators occasionally recognised that satisfying everyone, all the time, can be a tricky business.

A week of fawning on both sides of the pond

Those worried that Jonathan Ross would be tamed into blandness by his suspension were probably relieved that sufficient impishness survived to generate at least one worked-up tabloid outrage over the weekend. My worry now though is that the sycophancy to which he's always been a little prone on his TV talk show might get out of hand. He was grimly syrupy with Tom Cruise, and the sense of a US style of talk-show courtship was compounded when the programme played a trailer for the film the star was promoting, rather than a clip. A clip is, notionally at least, an opportunity for the audience at home to judge a sample of the film. A trailer, on the other hand, offers the distribution company an opportunity to play a commercial on a channel that excludes them. Was this a condition of Cruise's appearance? Or does Ross's production company really think that there isn't a difference between illustration and a sales pitch?

*The level of deranged fan-mania at President Obama's inauguration has been unsettling. Serious newspapers wrote of his "magic touch" without apparent irony, the panellists on Question Time fell over themselves to touch the hem of his garment and the general impression has been that he can do no wrong. We all yearn to feel good about something at the moment – but he's a politician, not a cross between Gandalf and Gandhi. His admirers would do well to keep praise in reserve for when he really needs good friends, rather than squander it now when it can barely be heard for the clamour of the false ones.

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