For one day in December, the word “Auschwitz” was ranked second on Yahoo’s daily list of most-popular searches. Third most popular that day? LeAnn Rimes. So what did it take for a symbol of the attempted destruction of an entire race of people as well as millions of others to outpace a country singer in her 20s? The previous day, five bumbling crooks stole the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign that teased and tormented prisoners passing through the main gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. This brazen crime was subsequently solved, the sign was recovered in Northern Poland, and searches for Auschwitz returned to their normal ranking well outside of the top 10.
On April 12, Auschwitz and the Holocaust may once again return to the top 10, as the United States pauses to recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jews and gentiles will gather to hear testimony, shed tears and hugs, and then swear “never again.” Unfortunately, the words “never again” do not seem to be referring to preventing future genocides, but rather to a dismissal of the Holocaust for the following 364 days. Holocaust fatigue has blanketed the population of the United States.
“Defiance,” “The Reader,” “Valkyrie,” “Inglourious Basterds.”
How can we be ignoring something that was in every multiplex across the nation this year?
What about museums? The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center opened in Skokie in spring 2009, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the oldest one of its kind in the United States, will open the doors of its new home Pan Pacific Park this fall. The Holocaust is as present now as it ever was in our hearts and minds. We remember, we educate. But, in a very real way, we have moved on.
We have gone from a world that faced the reality of the Nazi death mills in print and film to a world that is Holocaust adjacent. When we do talk or remember, it is not about the camps themselves but about a tangential story. The Holocaust is now a character in films and books. A plot point. A figure in the background. At times it is used as a fable, like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” At other times, it is fictionalized outright, as in “Inglourious Basterds.” An entire generation of children is growing up in a post- “Schindler’s List” world, without a point of reference as to the reality of the Holocaust. These children have no visual depiction of the Holocaust. Ask a teenager what he or she sees when you mention the word Holocaust. The answer will not be the same one you would get if you asked a person in his 40s or 50s. We have moved away from the actual concentration camps, and we don’t seem to be going back.
This idea of becoming Holocaust adjacent may seem shocking at first, but then, upon inspection, eerily accurate. Our films no longer take us to the camps. They take us near the camps. They take us to a post-camp world. As long as they take us to a place where the specter of the Holocaust merely looms in the background, foreboding, foreshadowing or coloring a character’s back story, we may turn out to watch. While it seems that the Holocaust is everywhere in film and television, if you stop and look a bit more closely, you’ll see very little about the systematic destruction of 11 million people.
I released a documentary film, “Swimming in Auschwitz,” in 2007. In my experience, very few people want to hear about the camps anymore. I can’t begin to tell you how many film festivals did not show my film, for the sole reason that “the audience doesn’t want to see those images anymore,” according to the programming director of a recent film festival. And many of these were Jewish film festivals. Just so you know that this is not sour grapes, “Swimming in Auschwitz” has been aired more than 1,400 times on PBS stations throughout the United States; it has played at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide and has been showered with glowing press. While it does not reinvent the wheel, it is a good film about six women who survived Auschwitz with a focus on spiritual resistance and maintaining humanity. It is a film with Auschwitz as its main location that uplifts the viewer by the end.
Even so, it is exceedingly hard to get people to stop what they are doing and watch something they think they have already witnessed. They insist that “they have seen enough” and want us to “move on.” As if one could watch “Schindler’s List” or read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and feel that he had experienced the Holocaust. The topic is beyond our grasp. No matter how much we read or see, we can never fully understand what it meant to be in Auschwitz or Stutthof or Buchenwald. Only the survivors understand that reality. We who live in the post-Holocaust world can only try to learn more, which cannot be done if we refuse to face the very camps and factories that killed and imprisoned millions.
That is not to imply that the numerous films and television programs being made every year are a bad thing. Far from it. The individual stories that came from the absolute evil of the Holocaust are more compelling than anything a writer could fabricate. They are full of resiliency and pathos, strength and suffering. They show the best of mankind while giving glimpses into the evil that lurks in societies. The Oscars and Emmys that follow some of these works are vital in encouraging others to undertake similar projects, as every survivor or righteous person has a story that is worthy of a book or film. But how can we talk about the Bielski brothers or Hannah Senesh if we don’t know about the Polish ghettos, Chelmno, Treblinka or the plight of the Hungarian Jews? It would be like composing music without ever learning of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart.
But just seeing pictures of mass graves and regurgitating numbers of victims does not an education make. The Holocaust didn’t start on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Or in the summer of 1942, when Birkenau became the largest killing factory this world has ever known. Or even in the spring of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered after Germany had, for all intents and purposes, already lost the war. Why then do we teach the Holocaust within these dates? It isn’t as if Hitler suddenly came to power one day and, the next day, Jews found themselves in ghettos and camps. But with a finite number of teaching hours available, it often comes down to what is most important to cover. As the head of a prestigious L.A. Hebrew school told me, she only has 20 hours to cover Jewish history in some of her classes; it is getting harder to teach the Holocaust at all.
To compound the issue, the Holocaust we are teaching has not changed and grown as we have moved further away from the crimes of the Third Reich and as we head toward the ever-approaching post-survivor world. How will the memories of the Holocaust survive when there are no firsthand witnesses to give testimony? When will we talk about the losses of culture and intellectual property that were present prior to the war? In Poland, a culture a thousand years in the making has never recovered from the devastation of the camps. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in many European countries, and Israel is as precarious as it has ever been. Maybe we have more-pressing issues to deal with on a daily basis than the Holocaust. With major genocides happening in the past few decades in Africa, Asia and Europe, perhaps our teaching hours are best spent elsewhere.
This would be a tragic mistake. The Holocaust, in addition to being studied and analyzed at numerous levels, gives us the advantage of historical distance. We have had six decades in which to garner, process and publish information in many thoughtful ways. A great example of this is the change in the types and tones of films made in different eras: “Night and Fog” versus “Shoah” versus “The Last Days.” All are documentaries, yet each has a specific tone and visual quality. Each taught us and showed us something about the Holocaust and the camps that was appropriate to what society was ready and willing to confront at the time. Looking at the films of the last decade, one is hard pressed to find a documentary that has received the accolades of the earlier works. Instead, the Holocaust fable (“Life Is Beautiful,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”), the individual stories of survivors and resisters (“Defiance,” “Valkyrie”) and outright fiction (“The Reader,” “Inglourious Basterds”) have filled the niche for Holocaust works. While these works shed light on narrow elements of the Holocaust and its environs, they do not replace the realistic works of fact.
This presents an additional dilemma: teaching the Holocaust and its history while still staying current with what society is willing to watch and embrace. As opposed to teaching the Holocaust as having been limited to 1939-1945 and instilling in young Jewish children their own unique Holocaust original sin, we must change how we teach and remember. This begins with exploring the world prior to World War II. A huge number of steps had to take place before the first concentration camp opened in Germany. What were the causes? How did people react? How would you have reacted? It’s not enough to study Auschwitz if you don’t have a strong understanding of the events that allowed Auschwitz to be built, and those events started long before the 1942 Wannsee Conference.
We need to teach the younger generations about the culture that was lost in the ghettos and camps. Intellectuals, teachers, artists were of limited value to the Third Reich, and that brain drain will never be recovered. We need to remember that Holocaust education should not end with May 8, 1945 — V-E Day — when Nazi armed forces surrendered.
The plight of survivors after the war is every bit as important in understanding Jewish history. While the roles of the Zionists in Palestine were crucial to the creation of Israeli statehood, does anyone believe that the Holocaust did not play a majority role in the formation of Israel in 1948? As we grapple with the numerous genocides that followed the Holocaust, we have to reflect on history. Regarding Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur, it is clear that the dictators and regimes behind those genocides were careful students of Hitler and the Third Reich. The stories of deportations among those survivors, when placed next to testimonies of Holocaust survivors, are eerily similar. Without the lens of history, we cannot see and contextualize what is transpiring in front of us.
All the films and books serve a purpose, some a bit higher than others, but all help in solving an infinite puzzle that is the Holocaust. We will never finish this puzzle, but every piece that we fill in gives us a greater understanding than we had before. But we need to stay vigilant. When fact becomes fiction, we must know enough so that we can shout out the truth. In jest the other day, a friend mentioned that we need to create a Holocaust Channel, where films and documentaries play 24/7/365. A bit extreme, yes, but an idea not completely without merit. It is within the documentaries and testimonies that we move as close as possible to a reality that will always escape us.
The Holocaust will not be forgotten. Even in another decade or two, when the last survivor with vivid memories of the camps is no longer with us, we will still have hundreds of thousands of hours of film and testimonies to study. But who will study them? When the last survivor is gone, will we no longer talk about the camps? Perhaps we will continue along the creative path that has become clear over this past decade. We will create stories adjacent to the Holocaust, and we will move further and further away from the actual causations and realities.
To do that would mean forgetting the most important reality of the Holocaust that we as non-survivors must remember. The camps themselves.
Jon Kean is a Los Angeles-based writer/director. He is a guest lecturer at the Rogers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University as well as serving as a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He can be reached through his Web site, www.swimminginauschwitz.com.