Remembering the Holocaust and Honoring Jews

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, it was celebrated (as it is every year) with a siren at 10:00 am that sounds throughout the country, causing life to come to a complete halt for a solid minute. Cars stop on the highway, doctors stop in surgery, children stop in recess, and the whole country comes to its feet and stands in silence. There are other ceremonies, remembrances, and conversations that happen on this day, but even if you ignore all of them, at the bare minimum, you can’t lose track of the day because that one minute sure lasts a long time.

Here in the United States, there is no siren, although communities often organize their own memorials. This week, several of my friends have been recommending an article in The Atlantic by Dara Horn, published this week, surely with a non-coincidental publication date. It’s called: Is Holocaust Education Making Anti-Semitism Worse? Using dead Jews as symbols isn’t helping living ones. I read Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews last year, and found it thought-provoking and interesting, even though I definitely didn’t agree with everything she said.

In my own family, and circulating in discussions of friends, and on billboards, there has been an increasing amount of chatter about a recent or trending rise in anti-Semitism. To be clear, I haven’t personally felt it. But enough people close to me have that it feels like something to be alert about, and a claim that holocaust education could be exacerbating anti-Semitism is certainly interesting, as her article’s title claims.

Before I even read it, I mapped it onto somethign that Dara Horn had said in a couple of the interviews she gave about her book. She complained that when she spoke to Jewish audiences, they could easily rattle off the names of many of the Nazi death camps. Auschwitz. Treblinka. Bergen-Belsen. They roll off the tongue with solemnity. But could these same audiences name Yiddish authors? The famous ones who had perished in those camps? Whose lives and livelihoods and culture were stamped out by Nazi sadism and genocidal efficiency?

I liked her question. Sometimes I have had the same reaction. There’s a gruesome salaciousness to entering the details of death and murder, and why do we have to talk about it so much and foreground it so much, when we could instead be honoring the victims not in their deaths but in the accomplishments of their lives.

And then I think about my family’s recent visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. So so so many painful stories, but the one that I can’t get out of my head is a woman who narrates how her nephew was being born just as the Nazis invaded the town. The Nazis were rounding up all the Jews— or starting to— so despite the chaos, she hightailed it to the hospital where her sister was recovering from childbirth, hoping to reunite before whatever fate was in store for them. Unsurprisingly, she couldn’t get in to the building because it was blockaded. Standing on the steps near the entrance, she saw bundles start to rain down from one of the upper floors, tossed to the ground like garbage. She — and the other bystanders down below— couldn’t quite make sense of what was happening. Some of the bundles had human-like form. Were they dolls? Why were Nazis tossing dolls out the window of the hospital?

And then the wailing. Those, of course, were newborn babies, thrown to their deaths hours after being born. 

It was hard to take in. It was impossible to believe. Unfathomable to explain.

She never met her nephew. She never saw her sister again. 

So you want to know why we talk about the Holocaust? Because that. That is why. How can that happen in a person’s lifetime and then not talk about it? How can I occupy the same world where that happened and not go on and on about it, like a memorial?

I went to read the actual essay with a mixture of strong thoughts and feelings. Here’s the upshot: it’s a powerful and gorgeous essay, and she asks wonderful questions. Among other things, she points out that using these stories to create feel-good convictions of moral superiority that begin and end with, “I would never throw a baby out of a window” perhaps misses the chance to more deeply examine human motivations, political power and sadistic impulses. 

And she wonders whether Holocaust education in its safe historical distance might actually be a chance to shy away from more relevant, devastating and difficult issues. Horn makes a case both for contextualizing the long history of anti-Semitism, and for deeper engagement with contemporary Jewish practice. And perhaps the two could come together, even though it’s hard for me to imagine a great educational world where non-Jewish teachers routinely lecture students about Jewish beliefs, culture, and practice. 

Which brings me to my personal worry about Holocaust education. Whether universalizing, particularizing, simulation-based, antiseptic in its historicity— how does a classroom engage with this content at all? What about a student…like me? Which is to say, someone who gets horribly, horrifically, catastrophically sad— all while sitting inside a classroom which typically has infrastructure, grades, and desired educational outcomes and not a lot of capacity for outright weeping. Sadness is not an educational goal. It doesn’t align with grade-based standards. It might not even be possible or advisable.

There are many Holocaust scholars and educators in this country. They know all about the history and the mechanisms and the torture and the systematic genocide. And they talk to students every day. Maybe they have a level of dispassion about the details, or maybe they feel crushed every day.

But I know that for myself, I can’t go to a Holocaust museum to learn the descent from anti-Semitism to madness and not grow despondent. I can’t wander through the stories and the halls and then leave to go eat lunch. My response isn’t activism. It isn’t conviction. It isn’t a moral lesson about the threat of tyranny, despair over the human penchant for cruelty, or the uplifted feeling of knowing there were those who risked their lives to do good. It is just plain sadness. 

Deep, deep wells of sadness. Wordlessly sad. Sad like a siren which shrieks for a minute with no words. No words are up to the task.

And with that said, for a situation that words can’t capture, on this Holocaust day, Dara Horn manages an awful lot of very powerful ones. I’m happy to have this anchor my own private remembrances this day, and highly suggest you go and read it too.

More From My Blog