March 30, 2006
Numb? Never Again
When I was 16, I visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on a school trip. It's a five-story museum with numerous artifacts and exhibits demonstrating the treachery of the Nazis.
Most people in our group were dumbstruck. Some were in tears. I was just numb. I felt nothing. And it scared me.
I couldn't tell anyone, because who could understand? I would be labeled as insensitive. But the Holocaust was just normal to me. For me, that day of viewing evidence of the Holocaust was no different from any other.
When I was 11, on the verge of adolescence, the world developed Holocaust frenzy. It was 1993, the year Steven Spielberg released "Schindler's List," considered by many to be one of the definitive movies about the Holocaust. That same year, the Washington Holocaust museum opened.
The week of my bat mitzvah, my mother started a new job as a cataloger for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, another Spielberg project. For almost six years of my life, my mother would regularly come to the dinner table with another harrowing story of a survivor and all the horrible things that had happened to him or her.
There were Holocaust documentaries one after the other (there was a longtime joke in Hollywood that if you entered a Holocaust documentary into the Oscars, it would automatically win), TV shows with Holocaust survivor stories and "Schindler's List" shown on network television unedited -- possibly the only movie that could get away with that. My mother spoke at synagogues about her work, the bookshelf at home was filled with Holocaust books and I studied about it in Hebrew High and high school. My life was saturated. There were so many reasons for me to be desensitized, reasons other people couldn't see.
My experience was extreme, but not singular. Many Jewish kids grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust. It became a popular subject to study. You were interesting if you knew or were related to a survivor. Everyone would ask you about your knowledge of it. "Jewish" and "Holocaust" became synonymous.
I have been told that the only things that Jews have in common are the Holocaust and Israel. It makes me bitter that the songs that I learned as a child, the holidays that I observe, the prayers, the Torah, and all the positive things that make Judaism what it is can be overshadowed by this monstrosity. There had to be something more to being Jewish than just the Holocaust, and the role of "Jew as victim."
Last year, I returned to Washington D.C., this time on an internship program and for classes for two months at Georgetown University. One night, I was sitting in an economics class, and our professor, Thomas Rustici, was talking about how governments take advantage of their people, how 170 million people died at their hands.
"You need an example? Go to the Holocaust museum," he said. "Six million Jews died, because who was checking on Hitler? ... You should go to the museum, and see the shoes, smell them, because people were in them."
There were some people who giggled, possibly out of nervousness, and Rustici responded with fury. He told me later how badly it hurt him, and how awful he felt for me -- after all, I was Jewish; he was Italian. I felt his anger flowing inside me too, anger I had never felt before. It was like throwing around a flame carelessly. Now they were the ones who were numb.
Not too long after that incident, I returned to the Holocaust museum, more educated and detached from my teenage years. I went with a different pair of eyes. I saw the cattle car, the different clothes and the shoes. And like any other person who goes, I understood the meaning behind those artifacts.
But what I knew, that could not be understood by most who go there, came to me when I saw the Torahs, the holiest of the holy books. They had been burned and unscrolled during Kristallnacht, desecrated and left lying in a heap on the floor; here, they were as they had been then, covered by a glass box.
I will never escape the Holocaust, not for as long as I live. It is impossible to escape such hatred, no matter how hard you try. As long as I say the words "I am Jewish," it will be there, haunting me. Although none of my family were a part of it, it's still a part of me.
In the story of Cain and Abel, God said, "Your brother's blood calls to me from the ground!" I share the blood of 6 million Jews and 5 million others, and the numerous hearts damaged by the horrors of the Nazis.
At least now I am no longer numb.
Reina V. Slutske is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.