“As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”
On Thursday afternoon I was privileged to speak on the phone with a vivacious, enthusiastic 93-year-old Holocaust survivor about participating in a remembrance event I’m organizing at a local college next month. April 8th is Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance in the United States and Israel. This warm and wonderful human being, Helen, and I, spoke for about twenty minutes and, I must say, it was as if a brightly shining light was being transmitted from her end of the phone to mine. I must also honestly admit that, however, as meaningful an experience meeting Helen for the first time truly was, I was also left with the same confounding sense of aggravated frustration that is always present in the midst of all that good energy, a phenomenon that occurs whenever I encounter one of these extraordinary human beings who not only survived the anti-Semitic hatred of the Nazis, but have chosen to spend the rest of their years fighting the good fight: to honor the memory of those who did not survive; to teach the truth to succeeding generations; to advance the teaching of human tolerance… a cause that, tragically, has never reached full traction in the post-Auschwitz world, as evidenced by the broad-based human suffering taking place in regions such as Bosnia, Rwanda and the Sudan. This contra-indicated sensation of hope-filled optimism and aggravated frustration is something I’ve learned to live with over the past two decades or so that I’ve had the pleasure to bring young people and Holocaust survivors together for the purpose of keeping the memory of the Shoah alive.
The “confounding sense of aggravated frustration” that occurs each time I encounter a Holocaust survivor is triggered, first of all, by the excruciatingly real fact that this precious inspirational human resource is collectively dwindling in number and so relatively few have been exposed to the power of their heart-rending testimonies in person. But emotional frustration also occurs on the other end of getting these living testimonies out into the broken world that so desperately needs to hear them: most attempts to organize events or implement curriculum that engages the teaching of the Holocaust – to include hosting a visit by a Holocaust survivor – is regularly met by so many forces of resistance that they are difficult to identify and enumerate. This phenomenon is perplexing, to say the least. I’ve encountered reluctance by administrators of secondary schools who simply seem frightened by the “controversy” or are concerned about the “depressive spirit” the subject of the Holocaust may inspire in both teachers and students. I’ve even encountered one instance where members of the board of a secondary school seem to have filibustered the hosting of a Holocaust survivor for reasons unknown. But the greatest obstacle to bringing critical awareness of the Holocaust to the current generation of youth seems to be the lack of TIME itself. The time it takes to properly break-down, articulate, analyze, and assimilate the essential information pertaining to this subject, within the time frame of a normal academic school year already jammed to the point of bursting with curricular objectives too inordinately huge for classroom teachers to manage, acts as an iron curtain of counter-purpose, allowing only dribs and drabs of Shoah-related content to trickle through into the mainstream, student-side of the curtain, most often, in the United States, by way of English/Language Arts classes via the assignment of Holocaust-related literature such as “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” and Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize-winning novella-memoir, “Night.”
Teachers are understandably overwhelmed by the depth and scope, the emotional, psychological and sociological complexity, as well as the heavy personal emotional burden of teaching the subject of the Holocaust to young people. It is an epic undertaking. There are serious ramifications to be considered if the Holocaust is presented in any way other than the way it ought to be presented. It is a heavy burden of responsibility, not only to bear-up under as a teacher, but to try to understand and fully incorporate into one’s own heart and soul as a person.
And yet, if not now, when?
I’m not writing on this occasion to appear “scholarly” or even remotely academic, but merely to vent my frustration with the resistance to taking up the cause of teaching and remembering the Holocaust in earnest — a burden that, up to this moment in history, has been left solely to the Jewish community to bear. Helen and her fellow survivors cannot do the job alone. Besides, as valuable and powerful as survivor testimony is, we need for the Holocaust to be taught as a matter of history by history departments of secondary and post-secondary schools if it is to remain a part of history at all. We Christians bear a huge burden with regard to our history of anti-Semitic theology and behavior as well as the horror that it spawned: the deafening silence that allowed for the Final Solution to be implemented with such ease. Therefore, it is the Christian community that ought to be taking the lead worldwide in this urgent matter of teaching and memorializing the Shoah.
I believe that there are sincere and concerned people out there who would take up this cause with courage and vigor, but the internal and external forces fighting against them are too formidable to be approached in a practical way. Complicating the issue with regard to the Church’s furtherance of the Second Silence is the fact that most practicing Christians do not seem to have any sense of awareness concerning the long, dark veil of Christian Anti-Semitism that hangs from the neck of its own painful legacy. If rank-and-file Christians were appraised of this submerged parallel legacy, it is my belief they would respond righteously, in the manner of King David when when confronted by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:7.
To correct something there must be understanding. It is the first step.
Why do you think the Christian community has not seen the great opportunity before it to take up the cause of teaching and memorializing the Holocaust? I’d love to get your feedback.
We need to make this right.
- Holocaust mementos to be displayed at Westbury temple (newsday.com)
- Holocaust survivors, high school students share a vow (miamiherald.com)
- Holocaust Survivor’s Search for Lost Twin (eogn.com)