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Jewish Journal

Have we hit Holocaust fatigue?

by Jon Kean

April 7, 2010 | 1:38 pm

Chimneys are among the last vestiges of the wooden barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Photos by Jon Kean

Chimneys are among the last vestiges of the wooden barracks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. Photos by Jon Kean

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.

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