29 January 2013

On Holocaust Memorial Day We Still Don't Know Enough About the Holocaust

Last Sunday (27 January) was the Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Actually, it was the UN and EU sanctioned remembrance. Yom HaShoa, is observed on 27 April.

Normally, I would not comment on such a sad and somber day, but I came across a couple of news item that made me think of something specific about the Holocaust.

A short while ago, a friend of mine sent me the video clip of Alice Sommer-Herz (also referred to as Alice Summers). She is a Holocaust survivor and a wonderful human being. She must be 110 this year and apparently lives by herself in a small flat in London and plays the piano for two and a half hour every day.

This is a brief interview with her where she explains how she always chose to feel optimistic and how she enjoys every small thing in life.

You can click here to see the clip. I promise you it will be worth your while.

I shared this clip with a few friends and one of them came back with a startling reaction. He said that he was so tired of Jewish people bringing up the Holocaust all the time that he found Alice's perspective refreshing.

I am using the adjective "startling" because, in my experience, Jewish people almost never bring up the Holocaust. This is especially the case for people who had family members perish in the camps. I think the idea that one can be hated so much for just being who they are that they can be summarily and systematically pushed aside, tortured and killed is so painful that they would rather not talk about it. I know I wouldn't. Especially considering that, at the time, a vast majority of humanity refused to lift a finger to stop the atrocities.

Then I asked around and to my chagrin, I found out that many people were secretly thinking along the same lines. Some thought that the topic was just ever-present. Others felt that we just studied obsessively something that has a zero chance of happening again. And yet others downplayed the unique horror of the Holocaust by comparing it with the suffering of the Palestinians. (Just like the Lib-Dem MP who said four days ago:
"I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.")
I personally believe that, despite being a disproportionately horrendous event, the Holocaust is mentioned much less often than the 9/11 World Trade Center incident. Consequently, most young people have either a very vague idea about the Holocaust or they ignore it completely. For instance, a significant majority of French people have never heard of the Vel d'Hiv round up I mentioned a few months ago. A contemporaneous opinion poll found out that of the respondents who are younger than 35 years of age, up to 67 % had no clue about the round up.

Last week, I was reminded of that blissful ignorance once again, when I read an article about a survivor who had to suffer in four different camps. Henia Bryer, prisoner A26188 told the BBC that she was worried that young generations knew nothing about the Holocaust.
"I had an operation once and the anaesthetist comes and looks at [the tattoo on] my arm and he says, 'What is this?' And I said, 'That's from Auschwitz.' And he said, 'Auschwitz, what was that?' And that was a young man, a qualified doctor," she says.

There was no time to explain: "I was unconscious the next minute!"

Bryer's memories of the camps and the scenes she witnessed, remain - and she is determined that what happened should never be forgotten.
People's impressions notwithstanding, I also know that we have not studied the Holocaust enough.

A day after I read the BBC piece, a friend of mine sent me a book review, The book was about the widespread and systematic rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women during the Holocaust.
The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women in the Holocaust has been a subject that is so taboo that it has taken 65 years for the first English language book on the subject to make its way to the public.
This is partly because of the circumstances.
Many sexually abused women were raped and then simply killed.

Author Moinka J. Faschka of Kent State University in Ohio, one of the contributors to the book, cites survivor Harry Koltun, who said in an interview: "[T]he Gestapo SS came in and took out a few Jewish girls, they took them into a forest and they never came back. They did what they had to do sexually, and they killed them. Nice, nice looking girls."
There was also an almost universal unwillingness to talk about these case.
At a presentation at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, the book's authors said that previously the barriers to telling the stories of sexual abuse have been tremendous. Some Holocaust scholars believed that segmenting out rape stories–and even women's stories unrelated to sexual violence--would sever women from the community by focusing on one group when all Jews, regardless of gender, were targeted for persecution. Rape was not included in the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi officials were charged with war crimes.

In other cases, women feared they would be considered "impure" or be ostracized by their families.
I am reasonably knowledgeable about World War II and the atrocities committed in most places and against most people. I read about the Holocaust and the social history of the period rather extensively. I have been to Yad Vashem.

If I never heard of these terrible stories that means that we haven't talked about the Holocaust and we haven't studied these terrible events nearly enough.

And as Rwanda and Srebrenica showed us, we need to do both if we don't want something like this ever to happen again.

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