4 March 2010
It is not so much the denial that scares me as the indifference.
I’ve been sitting in the back of the classroom during “History of the Holocaust” for nearly two months now. I’ve been diligently taking notes, listening intently to the professor, and hoping that my fellow students would begin to show some indication that they truly understand the enormity and horror of the Holocaust. As yet, it hasn’t happened.
At some point in every class session, I’ve been compelled to politely raise my hand and then offer either a comment germane to the material being presented or a question designed to amplify something coming from the front of the room. Every time I hope someone else will jump into the potential discussion. It never happens. I’ve sat there; disappointed, astounded that no one else cares enough to get involved. I’m trying to remember that I am the student, not the professor. Fritz has a wealth of material linked and ready for students to follow. I don’t see any indication that they are.
During yesterday’s class I came to the horrifying realization that Fritz was going to leave the period during the German invasion of the USSR, the period when Einsatzgruppen with the eager assistance of local Ukrainians and Russians slaughter ca. 1.5 million Jews in the Shtetls of the Pale and in the cities of Ukraine and the Baltic states; without ever presenting any information from the people who were able to document what happened at the Shtetls, at Kiev, at Babi Yar.
It is important to know what drove the Nazis and what allowed German troops and auxiliaries to commit wholesale face-to-face murders of thousands of people, to wipe out entire villages day after day. But it is even more important to understand what happened from the vantage point of the Jews, dying in the thousands with no hope of reprieve and no hope of rescue. How does anyone presume to teach the Holocaust without telling the victims’ stories?
I’m firmly convinced that most of this class is unable to relate to the slaughter of millions, hearing only numbers, excuses from authors who have no personal stake in the matter, statistics that deal with numbers too immense to relate to. I doubt that anyone of them can look at a Yitzkor book and see family names and the entry” murdered by the Nazis Sept 1941.” I imagine their family trees don’t have entire branches that end in 1941, 42, or 43. If I had 30 minutes I could lay the information about a single shtetl before their un-opened eyes and try to make them aware of the unique position occupied by the Jews of Eastern Europe at the beginning of WWII and during the invasion of the USSR.
If I ask the right questions, can I actually open their eyes and cause them to recognize how willingly their neighbors and countrymen handed over the bulk of the Jewish populace to be killed? Could I bring them to understand how few righteous gentiles were willing to risk their own lives and those of their families to save Jews from certain death by handgun or at the camps? I don’t think so. I’m not that adept a speaker, not inclined to be a teacher, even at a university level. And most problematic of all, I don’t think the facts really matter to them. Jews are people who live somewhere else. Some of them dress funny, some talk funny. Jews don’t eat bacon, Jews think Saturday is the Sabbath, and Jews don’t love Jesus. They have little or no reason to really care what happened to a bunch of foreign Jews when their grandfathers were sent to fight WWII that was probably started by Jews anyway.
No, I don’t think I can wake them up, make them see something that they have never seen before, Jews as ordinary people. But I have to try. If I don’t try and others like me don’t try, the growing distance and disconnection from the Holocaust makes it all too likely to happen again.