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From the Introduction
The Holocaust has never been so ubiquitous. It has never been studied so extensively, taught so widely, or taken with such frequency as a subject for novels and films. On 1 November 2005, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day so that it is now commemorated almost universally, held up as the global benchmark for evil, as the ultimate violation of human rights and crimes against humanity. The seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the concentration camps was marked with ceremonies attended by heads of state and church leaders alongside the frail, shrinking band of survivors.
However there is a yawning gulf between popular understanding of this history and current scholarship on the subject. This is hardly surprising given that most people acquire their knowledge of the Nazi past and the fate of the Jews through novels, films, or earnest but ill-informed lessons at school, which frequently rely on novels for young adults or their filmic versions. Misconceptions are reinforced by the edited and instrumentalized versions purveyed by campaigning bodies and the constellation of organizations devoted to education and commemoration. Although these efforts are made in good faith, they are subordinate to extraneous agendas, be it the desire to cultivate an inclusive national identity or the laudable determination to combat anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and other forms of political, religious or ethnic intolerance. Some lazily draw on an outdated body of research, while others utilize state-of-the-art research but downplay inconvenient aspects of the newer findings.
It is easier to arrange one-day visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 960,000 Jews were murdered, than to Treblinka, where some 860,000 Jews were killed in a shorter space of time, let alone to the broadly dispersed but omnipresent killing fields of Belarus and Ukraine, where around one and half million Jews were shot to death.
Conscientious educators preparing and accompanying the flying visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau strive to frame the concentration and extermination camp within the larger history of the genocide inflicted on the Jews, but the emotional charge that imprints the historical data on the mind is inevitably shaped by physically witnessing this one site. Notwithstanding the intense preparation, the other locations where most Jews suffered, died, and were done to death remain distant. As a result the customary narrative is lopsided. The emphasis on deportations to death camps, particularly from western Europe and particularly to Auschwitz, overshadows the benighted experience of Jews in Polish ghettos. Yet the number of Jews incarcerated in the ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz in 1940-1 exceeds the combined Jewish populations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands at the same time. More Jews died in Warsaw than were deported from France to the killing sites of eastern Europe. More Jews were shot within walking distance of their homes in Kiev on 29-30 September 1941 than were forced to endure the horrendous five-day journey in box-cars from transit camps in Belgium to death camps in Poland. Yet one of the most typical Holocaust memorials is a freight car mounted on a segment of rail track.
The use of survivor testimony routinely trumps the dissemination of scholarship. Survivors may only be able to illuminate a tiny corner of the sprawling historical tragedy from their own experience, but they were there, so their every word is highly charged. However, the use of survivor testimony in educational and commemorative settings swerves comprehension in the direction of a small cadre whose experiences are unrepresentative.
It is trite to remark that as survivors they are atypical of what the majority of Jews endured under Nazi rule. More pertinently, the passage of time dictates that they could only have experienced the Nazi years as children, teenagers or young adults. They observed the dilemmas of adults and can report on how things were for their mothers, fathers, grandparents and older relatives, but they cannot testify to what it felt like to be a middle-aged person confronted by persecution and unnatural death. They can only offer an echo of what it meant to lose homes and businesses, the painfully acquired achievements of a lifetime or several generations. Young people were largely insulated from, or took no direct part in, the internecine struggles that typified life in Jewish communities under ruthless pressure to divide one from another: those fit to work from those unfit, those with resources from those with none, those with contacts amongst the authorities from those bereft of patronage. They witnessed but did not feel the emotions of adults trying to protect children and loved ones, the despair and rage that accompanied helplessness and, ultimately, loss.
On the contrary, what survivors offer is a wonderful example of how youthful traumas can be overcome. They show how it is possible to rebuild in one generation what was mercilessly destroyed in the previous one. Inspiring testimony such as this inevitably carries a redemptive message. No matter how unpleasant or unvarnished the content, the age of the speaker, and the courage they show in recalling horrendous times bestows on them a heroic aura. They are envoys from a fearful distant past, bearing a message of hope - that survival and recuperation is possible whatever the odds against them.
Commemorative events, especially those with survivors present, are naturally constructed to avoid sensitive and conflicted subjects. They steer around phenomena like the corruption of life in the ghettos and the moral degradation of camp inmates. They skirt awkward questions of forced cooperation with the German authorities or acts of premeditated revenge. They maintain a discreet silence over instances of voluntary infanticide, sexual exploitation amongst the Jews, rape and even cannibalism. Yet all these things occurred at times in ghettos, camps, urban hideouts and forest sanctuaries. Educational programmes have more latitude and ambition when confronting such touchy issues, but since they are designed to inoculate against racism, the emphasis is on the crimes of the Germans, their allies and accomplices or the indifference of 'bystanders'. To dwell on the terrible things that Jews did to Jews would be tantamount to 'blaming the victims', a variety of prejudicial thinking that 'Holocaust education' is itself supposed to expunge. Ironically, these are the very areas currently being explored by responsible, conscientious researchers.