There are many avenues to, and in, Holocaust history, and these can be roughly subdivided into two main categories. On the one hand, there are personal accounts of survivors, as well as those of major and minor non-survivor players of that era, both dead and “dwindlingly” alive. Then, there are the efforts of those born after that epoch who choose to delve into its fathomless depths.
I technically belong to the former category, though as a hidden infant in occupied France, I can hardly claim to bear firsthand witness. Nevertheless, having lost my father and nine other family members in Auschwitz, and others to the Einsatzgruppen killing fields of eastern Europe, the Shoah has to a very large extent shaped my life.
There are complex and emotion-laden questions regarding how to access Shoah information, and what and how to pass it on to future generations. When it comes to Holocaust education, I have two personally painful misgivings regarding what I have seen, and that have intensified over the years. The first is about how the memory of the Holocaust is observed, and the second is concerned with how it is researched and chronicled.
‘The sight of a Jewish high school student taking on the role of a Nazi traumatized me’
I hasten to add that these are my personal observations, and they may not sit well with some. To those who actually lived through the horrors and survived, I cannot – and will not – disagree with their opinions regarding this period, even if they are radically different from mine. Because they were there. No one can contradict what they saw with their own eyes, and how they internalized it. Nor should anyone argue with the path they chose once they left that hell on earth.
It is with the heirs of that legacy – those who were not there – with whom I might occasionally take issue. And even here I leave out the children and grandchildren of survivors who bore witness to the pain and agony that their parents and their grandparents carried – both overtly and repressed. That surely affected them as they grew up, even if they weren’t aware of it. No, it is mainly with those who were born well after the war, whose families may or may not have been tangentially affected by those events and who pontificate on the Shoah, that I address these words.
My discomfort began many years ago during a Yom Hashoah ceremony at the Jewish high school where I taught. The students put on a skit whose specific content I have forgotten, but one haunting image remains etched in my mind. It is of a student who was dressed as a Brownshirt, complete with an armband that featured a large swastika. He was shouting “Sieg Heil” with an upraised arm. It didn’t matter to me that the rest of the cast represented persecuted Jews – my people, most of whom were eventually murdered. The sight of a Jewish high school student taking on the role of a Nazi traumatized me.
On another occasion, two of my students who had just returned from participating in the March of the Living asked me if they could address the class. I agreed. But then one of them proceeded to relate how she had crawled into an oven while touring Auschwitz. I don’t remember the explanation she offered as to why she did that, but I do know that when she described that moment time stopped for me. I can’t even remember my reaction, or what followed.
A third of my too-many examples: a high school student who returned from the March of the Living told her mother that it was a very hot day when they walked on the train tracks that led to Birkenau. She was wearing a March of the Living jacket, she said. And though she was very uncomfortable in the heat, she explained that she kept the jacket on – because she felt that she had to suffer as those who perished there had.
All three of these youngsters were innocent and well meaning. I cannot fault them, and yet I have serious problems. But with whom? Their teachers? Their mentors? Their parents?
Which brings me to my point. Notwithstanding the necessity of remembering the Shoah and passing this memory down, it is impossible – and very unwise, in my opinion – to expect young people to try to “experience” what happened in the ghettos and camps. The world in which they live is vastly different from that one, and no amount of play-acting or gimmicks can ever recreate it. God forbid they be subjected to similar traumas. To attempt to do this with the young, in any overt or psychological manner, is, to my eyes, sacrilegious.
Perhaps the following will clarify and illustrate what I am attempting to convey regarding the limitations of trying to transmit what transpired in the Holocaust.
During the war, my late mother was hidden in a convent. Not knowing when she might be arrested, she always kept a packed suitcase nearby.
Though she knew that her children had been placed in hiding in different locales, she worried constantly for their safety. She had no knowledge of what happened to her husband and his siblings and their spouses after they were rounded up. Nor did she know what happened to other family members. Perhaps that was for the best, for had she known that they were taken to Auschwitz, she could not possibly have fathomed what they went through, even after the war when she found out about their fates.
For my part, having personally experienced the aftermath of the Shoah, and having been haunted by it as long as I can remember, I could never creep into my mother’s mind and appreciate what she went through. Similarly, my children, who grew up in the house of a child survivor, could not enter into my mind. So what can I, or should I, expect my grandchildren to understand? Certainly it is not an ersatz “realistic” experience of the Shoah. Yes, they must be exposed to, and study at appropriate ages this painful chapter in our history. But they should never be told that they can recreate it – in any form.
How to preserve and observe the memory of the Shoah, and its uniqueness, is an incredibly difficult task. I do not have the answers, though I would expect that it would involve, at least in part, studying how we as a people kept alive the memory of past tragedies.
‘I would prefer, naively perhaps, for historians who are driven to…the study of the Holocaust not do so on an exclusive, full-time basis’
It is also very important that students be taught how and when to ask questions, especially of survivors while they are still with us. To this day I am haunted by the questions I heard being asked by Grade 13 students to a man who had been on the Judenrat, the Jewish Council imposed by the Nazis, in Brussels, and who had managed to escape to Switzerland with his family. He was challenged as to how he could have been on the Judenrat, and also how he could have abandoned the Jewish community when he escaped. These questions, innocent as they might have been coming from students who had not been sensitized, damned him post facto.
As I said, I do not have the answers. But the issues I present must be addressed. Unfortunately, I know that many of the approaches now taken regarding transmission of the Holocaust are not only morally questionable, but I also cannot see how they will be effective in the future.
The second aspect of my distress concerns the question of how we should, or might, uncover the unknown and often unknowable details of this sordid past. I am referring to the pedagogical category known as Holocaust studies, and here I sit on shakier, yet also emotional grounds.
I admit that I am uncomfortable with the term “Holocaust studies,” though I know cerebrally that it is very important to find out as much of this past as possible. What disturbs me is the notion that people will enter a field and attempt to gain some recognition, even a reputation, on the bones of my people – including my father. I have the uneasy, even distressing image of a Holocaust studies conference where the participants have a coffee and tea break while they politely discuss various aspects of their research.
I know that what I am saying will be disturbing to many in this field, but it is a very personal cri de cœur. I certainly do not want to stop research into the tangled web of the history of the Shoah. What I would prefer, naively perhaps, is for historians who are driven to – and not just interested in – the study of the Holocaust to not do so on an exclusive, full-time basis. By this I mean that they should also deal in depth with non-Holocaust fields and issues, and that their teaching load at all levels – both high school and university – should reflect this.
The Holocaust should not be relegated to the backwaters of history, of course. Neither should it be used to gain prestige and fame or to build an academic empire. It is part of a long legacy that must be passed on to future generations, but it is not the raison d’être of our heritage.
Eli Honig taught physics at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for 31 years, and for longer than that at the University of Toronto.