I keep seeing more and more photos out of Russia these days of people embracing the Neo-Nazi movement. It’s not enough to simply say they are naïve. Their support for a movement that literally destroyed half the world is not a matter that should be taken lightly in the least. We have only look at Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria to see how fanaticism has consequences.
I imagine most of us remember Holocaust education from our school days. Typically you saw some films with countless bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. It seems inconceivable that the majority of people only know the story of Anne Frank when there were millions upon millions of others – all with unique stories of their own – that are largely ignored by time pressed school curriculums. We need to make the time – we won’t convince all the kids but we need to start somewhere. I’m not saying tell every story but I’m saying balance the coverage of the curriculum – five minutes isn’t enough to give a sense of the true scope of the horror that was the Holocaust.
With that in mind, I would like to make several points regarding educational initiatives when it comes to Holocaust awareness that I would hope would be relevant throughout the world. First of all personal contact with survivors:
I remember in school having a guest speaker one day. Later that afternoon as I was going to the bus to go home I saw him standing all alone. I have no idea why, but I felt compelled to walk up to him and thank him for coming to see us. I guess I felt sorry for him because he was standing all alone. I held out my hand to him. I was a tiny little girl and he was a huge man. I’ll never forget the look on his face. His eyes welled up with tears that he bravely held back. I think for him the fact that even one child had paid attention to his story made him feel that his efforts at educating today’s youth had not been in vain. There was one that had listened. Sadly many of our survivors are elderly now and such personal contact is not always possible. But there are many good documentary films out there in which those who are no longer with us have shared their experiences.
Secondly I think a dangerous impression that the bulldozing scenes alone without elaboration give is that it is either staged (for those who look for reasons to deny history) or that they’re all just “victims” like some video game – a horrible generalization that dehumanizes all of those individuals into one mass causality that simply disappeared into the ground to be forgotten. Which leads to my third point:
What you rarely ever hear about is the aftermath. As soldiers came upon some of the camps after the war to help liberate the survivors, they described many of the people they saw as zombies who were well on their way to irreversible madness. They wondered if the people would ever be able to adjust to “normal” life again. Of course many did as we well know. The ones you never hear about are the ones that didn’t. The countless people that wandered the world from place to place. Their entire families, communities and cities that they had lived in for generations ceased to exist.
We forget those in resettlement camps in Cyprus on their way to Israel that put wire fences around their tiny tents because they simply wanted to be alone. Having spent years in cramped, foul bunks with strangers from all walks of life and languages they wanted to shut themselves off from the world.
Many rediscovered their faith in God for having survived and made it their life’s mission to tell their stories so that those who did not might never be forgotten. Others who felt God abandoned them simply wanted anonymity never to be reminded of the horror again by others who could never possibly understand the daily terror of watching babies shot and elderly women gassed among the long list of atrocities. Those “others” often included their own children who they had after the war. Many of these children grew up unaware of their own parents history and often felt emotional disconnect from parents who never fully came out of a state of shock and were unable to provide the emotional nurturing that many of they themselves had been stripped of themselves whilst going through the war. To survive you often had to turn off your emotions – not run to save the child or shield the father. Doing so could mean forfeiting your own life.
Sometimes I wonder if these so called neo-Nazis that throw their arms up casually in the air have ever looked into the eyes of someone who has truly lost everything. Sadly they don’t have to watch documentaries, they can just turn on their nightly news and watch the wars of the world raging around them today. Then put it in perspective – Nazism created the very same terror on a scale incalculable even compared to what you see on your news today. The terror doesn’t stop when the war does – it survives for generations to come in abandoned homes, the eyes of orphans, wandering homeless and the vacant stares of the mad. Nazi jokes aren’t funny and throwing up your arm in the air is like wishing for the world to end and rest assured you’ll be along for the ride with the rest of us.