When I was in about second or third grade I asked my dad what the Holocaust was. I do not remember where I first heard the word “Holocaust,” but it seemed important and serious. I had just started religious school and we were on our way home. I am not sure what exactly he told me, but he was surprised that somebody had not taught me about this earlier. And I am pretty sure that’s about the same time I discovered the Holocaust. Somehow it made sense that I first learned about this at the same time I was enrolled in religious school and my family first started services.
Growing up, I never really wanted to learn about the Holocaust. I was interested in history and World War II, but learning about the Holocaust just bothered me. It meant photos of starved prisoners, emaciated corpses, and demographic maps illustrating the destruction of the European Jewry. Holocaust stories and historical fiction like Daniel’s Story or Maus always proceeded along familiar narrative that went from prosperity and happiness to rising antisemitism, ghettos, and finally death camps and mass murder. Somehow I preferred learning about the Battle of Britain, U-Boats, or carrier battles in the Pacific. Whether I liked it or not though, the Holocaust was always more powerful, if only for being more depressing.
In the mid-1990s I remember being told repeatedly by teachers at religious school that Schindler’s List was an amazing movie, but it was something I should never watch because it was rated R and not meant for children like me. When I was older, they showed the movie The Devil’s Arithmetic. Because it was based off of a children’s novel, it was theoretically supposed to be more palpable, but it was just as bad as anything else. I will always question the appropriateness of including gas chamber scenes in any Holocaust movie, especially one meant for younger audiences. At what point does Holocaust education just become inappropriate or just plain disrespectful to the victims? That could be a whole other blog post.
The Holocaust is something everyone should know about, but we need to be careful with something that powerful. I still have not quite wrapped my head around the fact that there are museums and historical sites with exhibits, programs, and collections that are solely focused on the Holocaust. I am not against it and once visited the Holocaust Museum, but it all just seems so difficult to deal with. What does it mean to carefully preserve Zyklon B cans that the Nazis used to commit mass murder? Sites such as Auschwitz have become preserved factories of death and carry that weight. What does it mean to be a curator who works in buildings that the Nazis built to facilitate mass murder? These objects and buildings will preserve memories of the Holocaust long after the last survivors die, so I do not question their preservation, but at the same time, I cannot imagine ever really wanting to work at such a museum.
Is there such a thing as too much Holocaust awareness? The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is the only Jewish History museum that many people will ever visit and it is entirely focused on genocide. Has Jewish history become too much of a story of oppression and victimization?