What Does 4/20 Mean To You?

Hitler’s Birthday to Fall on Passover—What Should We Remember?


Published: April 17, 2008

April 20 marks the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine High school massacre. This year, it also marks the ironic concurrence of Adolf Hitler’s 119th birthday and the beginning of Pesach, or Passover, the feast of Jewish liberation. In lieu of all that, potheads, too, will gather to mark 4/20 in their own unique way.

Everybody wins.

Whether or not I am justified in drawing a connection between these events, particularly the birth of Der Fuhrer and Jewish freedom, I use the concurrence simply to elucidate a relevant point. Regarding Americans’ collective memory—how much should we concern ourselves with the past?  Does it make any  real difference? Mightn’t it be better if we just forgot?

On March 18, Sen. Barack Obama addressed America, his memorable words urging a national discussion on race. “My story hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate,” he stated. “But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.”

As he briefly traced his family history—through his own black father and white mother, and his wife, whose ancestors were slaves—he underscored the tacit plurality of the word “American.” The “many” in his speech did not refer to a nation kept by geographical boundaries, but to a boundless space in a timeless time. It referred to an organic, even primitive, sense of human unity.

The message of Obama’s speech coalesces with the goal of collective memory; a concept which states in order to make up for past mistakes, it is necessary for a nation to a) recognize those mistakes and b) use them for present and future reparations. Only this twofold effort will lead to the experience of a sonorous working-through.

Every year that passes in the shadow of World War II, it is rare that April 20 will go by without mention of Adolf Hitler. There are those who celebrate by breaking windows of synagogues, those who even bake cakes.

For others, April 20 is a day of cemeteries and silent mourning.

This year, it will also be a day of unleavened bread.

However we choose to celebrate the date, life always presents us with the possibility of new relevance. Every year, April 20 embodies new meaning.

And what if we just forgot?

The past may seem, on the surface, to have little to do with us. But the assumption that it is gone, or that we are better off without it, is false.  Consequences are things we deal with every day, and they follow us through the ages.  We can’t escape our mistakes.

As Obama implied when he explained the relationship to his ancestors, and Americans to each other, when we acknowledge the past, it is equivocal to having an experience of it. If we increase our knowledge of an event, no matter how traumatic or how far away it was, we have opened ourselves to reparations for past injustices and transcendence.

Allowing Adolf Hitler’s birthday to mean something to us on Passover this year will bring historical transgressions into the present moment where we can deal with them more directly. Of course we will not make up for the lost and the suffering simply by recalling what went wrong in the years before us. But when we allow history to show us the problems we currently face, to shed light on them, we may see how we are all connected—even to Hitler. We may see how our individual experiences are composed of the same continuum of mysteries and beauties, births and deaths, and we will have begun to see the present world as a common ground, a place where the whole history of mankind may progress.

If we concern ourselves with the past, we can also expect the coming generation to concern themselves with us. If we learn from each others’ mistakes by committing ourselves to collective remembrance, we ensure that everyone benefits and set a good example for the ages to come. Everybody wins.