In 1973, Lucy the Elephant in Margate, New Jersey, was almost torn down. Only a Saturday morning court injunction stopped the wrecking ball, according to Richard Helfant, Lucy’s executive director for the past 22 years.
As he tries to raise the final $800,000 for the landmark’s present-day renovation, Helfant wants shore locals to remember that history. So, in a summer fundraising mailer, he sent a picture of Lucy from that year alongside the phrase, “Never forget, never again.”
The mailer helped raise $70,000, but it also angered summer Margate residents Susan and Matthew Klyman for its obvious connection to Holocaust remembrance language. The Jewish couple asked for a public apology from Helfant, who is also Jewish, and received one in recent days.
To the Klymans, the phrase is not exclusive to the Holocaust, but it should be reserved for Holocaust-type events.
“If you’re going to talk about it in a universal sense, it’s also to prevent other genocides,” Susan Klyman said. “To use it in a more cavalier way demeans the meaning of those words.”
“We can’t ever forget that she was that close to the wrecking ball, and we can’t let it happen again,” Helfant said of Lucy in the days before his apology. But in his apology, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, he said that the Lucy did not measure up to the phrase.
Matt Klyman mentioned that the phrase could also help people remember the Armenian genocide and the Rwandan genocide, as well as a tragedy like 9/11 in the United States. While historical memory is important in any context, some events are more important to remember than others, and those words hold a lot of weight.
Susan Klyman believes that “unfathomable loss of life,” and in particular human life, should be the focus of them. About 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Almost 3,000 Americans died in 9/11.
Lucy, on the other hand, is “an inanimate object,” Matt Klyman said. The couple does care about Lucy and donate money to the cause of preserving the attraction.
“But it does not have the meaning of a loss of life and genocide,” Susan Klyman said.
Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said people could use a few words any way they wanted. But before doing so, they should ask themselves why a particular term has resonance.
In the United States, the phrase “Never forget, never again” has become associated with Holocaust remembrance. We look at the Holocaust and see failures to act, according to Friedberg. So, in our pluralistic society, it’s supposed to imply that never again shall we fail like this for any group, not just Jews.
Therefore, it’s important to be careful when using the language.
“You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis, and people have to ask themselves if they are just using the language or exploiting the emotional reactions people have to the phrase,” the historian said.
Jonathan Sarna, the resident historian at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, agrees with Friedburg that it’s important to look at and understand the motivation of the person using the phrase.
The Brandeis University professor used “all lives matter” as an example. Few people would disagree with that statement on its face. Yet in a post-George Floyd, post-Black Lives Matter and post-2020 context in the United States, it can be a dismissive response to a call for equality for Black Americans.
“That’s why you have to look at the particulars of the case,” he said.
After considering the particulars of the Lucy case, Sarna thought many Jews would say that the use of the language was “perhaps unintentionally insensitive.” He believed it was probably a good idea to come up with wording a little more appropriate to the situation.
“Once you cheapen a phrase, it’s hard to restore it to the sanctity that it once had,” he said. JE