Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
Images from the Holocaust: A Literature Anthology
It has been over 50 years since Nazi Germany perpetrated the death and destruction of millions of people, most specifically the Jews. As the 50th Anniversary of the end of WW II approached, the public found itself revisiting the Holocaust with emotionally powerful movies such as The Holocaust and Schindler's List. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was evolving and creating a "teaching" museum, warehouses filled with documentation were revisited, new documentation was discovered, and memories of survivors were also rekindled. Stephen Spielberg's "Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation" is attempting to collect the oral histories of those survivors. In all, there has been a renewed interest in how the Holocaust could have happened. The offshoot of all of this concentrated attention has been the dramatic growth in the number of books written by survivors and their relatives.
For someone looking to touch and sense the feelings and emotions of the Holocaust over time, Images from the Holocaust: A Literature Anthology, edited by Jean E. Brown, Elaine C. Stephens, and Janet E. Rubin is an excellent place to start. This comprehensive anthology offers the reader a smorgasbord of literature including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama. This powerful collection covers a range of emotions from the thought-provoking to overwhelming. It is this diversity that lends to this book's use in the classroom.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust, educators find themselves challenged in attempting to deal with the scope of the event. It was an event that had its foundation laid over an extended period of time and it involved literally millions of people as either perpetrators, bystanders, or as victims. Peoples' reactions to the events of the Holocaust varied greatly. Educators will find the editors' thematic organization of the chapters of this book extremely helpful in trying to deal with the frames of time, numbers, and diverse ideas and emotions. Each chapter contains from seven to fourteen selected readings (in whole and in part) revolving around each theme. This affords the teacher the opportunity to select readings appropriate to the age and maturity level of his students.
In Chapter One (Rumblings of Danger), the roots of anti-Semitism in Germany and Hitler's rise to power are explored. Two works stand out in this chapter. Barbara Rogasky's "The Roots" (from her work Smoke and Ashes) traces the historical growth of anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Semitism's evolution in Germany along with Hitler's calculated efforts to utilize and capitalize on the existing feelings of fear, hatred and intolerance. Richard Plant's "Before the Storm" (from The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals) describes the "social hurricane" that existed in Germany after 1919. As a result of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, the ineffective Weimar government, hyper-inflation and other events related to the economic crisis, and the fear of Bolshevism, the people of Germany were looking for simple solutions to very complicated questions and issues. Hitler was quick to provide the people with "scapegoats".
In Chapter Two (In Hiding), Jewish attempts to escape detection and deportation are described. The reader cannot help but be overwhelmed by the feelings of isolation and fear that are described by the authors, most of whom were survivors, in this section. Most notable were Jane Mark's piece from The Hidden Children: The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust and Henry Orenstein's excerpt from I Shall Live: Surviving Against All Odds. It is impossible to imagine how children handled living in sewers, spending most of the day hiding is small, secret places, or having their parents send them away while being told to remember their new name and to forget their past. It is almost incomprehensible to think that young children were afraid to play, move, cough, or even go to the bathroom since any of these acts could potentially result in their, their family's, or their protector's detection and capture.
Chapter Three (Existence of Life on the Run) addresses the issues of why Jews did not flee and how, once they realized their mistake, they sought to escape the massive efforts to round them up for deportation to the camps in the East. Karen Gershon's We Came As Children details the efforts to get Jewish children out of Germany and into places where they would be safe, be they private homes or institutions run by organizations. One of the most inspiring pieces was Richard Petrow's The Bitter Years in which the Danish efforts to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on Danish Jews is detailed. One of the very unique things about this effort to save the Jews was that it was essentially the spontaneous efforts of individuals who organized and carried it out.
Chapter Four (Surrounded by Ghetto Walls) is one of the most difficult to read in terms of the emotions that it evokes. The entire ghetto network was geared towards isolating the Jews, demoralizing them, and rendering them defenseless. What continues to amaze me is how the Germans successfully utilized the Judenrat and the Jewish Police Force to run and control the operation of the ghettos. This is detailed in Dawid Sierakowiak's dairy Lodz Ghetto. Life in the most infamous ghetto in Warsaw is described in Abraham Lewin's A Cup of Tears: A Diary of Warsaw Ghetto. Most vivid are his descriptions of the efforts to liquidate the ghetto in which he details the role of the Judenrat, the Jewish police, and the Ukrainians in carrying out the aims of the Nazis. His descriptions of the fear, despair, and uncertainty that resulted from the German unpredictable, spontaneous, and sadistic violence is haunting. The fact that no one was safe be he man, woman, child, sick, or healthy, and the apparent totally random nature of the violence only added to the Jewish inability to cope or resist.
Equally chilling is Chapter Five (Imprisoned in the Camps). By the time that the Wannsee Conference was held in January 1942, Heydrich's and Eichmann's plans for the ghettos, roundups, deportation, and the camps were already in motion. As Jews boarded trains to make the fateful journey to the East, little did they realize that the horror already in their lives was about to get even worse. Once again they found themselves at the mercy of fate. Could they survive the transport? Do you tell your correct age and occupation? Which line do you try to get into? Is this a camp for labor or a camp for death? Primo Levi's If Not Now, When: Survival in Auschwitz is a graphic presentation of the desperation of the Jews as they were transported East. His statement that "he who loses all often easily loses himself" is a telling summation of the calculated dehumanization process that the Nazis inflicted on the Jews. Nothing was left to chance. Everything was orchestrated according to typical German efficiency. For many, the line between normal and abnormal blurred to where even the Jews became almost insensitive to their fate. Individual survival instincts and luck were the difference between life and death. Tadeusz Borowski's This Way To The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen demonstrates how the need to survive compelled Jews to do what would have been normally considered unthinkable. What others lost or did not need since they were going to their death, or they had died in transport, became a means for living a little longer or even surviving. A bowl, a coat, a crust of bread, an item for barter... that is how thin the line of survival was.
Very often, Jews are described as "accepting their fate and walking off to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter". In Chapter Six (Resisting Evil), acts of courage and resistance are presented. Because of the Nazi organization being well-armed and dedicated to their cause, it was difficult to resist. Resistance did occur and it occurred in many forms ranging from simple, almost imperceptible acts of defiance (refusing to report or follow orders, taking pictures, keeping records, spitting in food meant for Germans) to armed revolt (Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor). In Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie, the efforts of the people in the French village of Le Chambon are described. It was fascinating how things managed to "come together" without any real central organization directing it. People defied the Nazis and the Nazi controlled Vichy government by organizing the protection and smuggling of Jews out of the country to safety. Even more chilling was Valdka Meed's description of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising from her book On Both Sides of the Wall. This "Aryan" appearing Jewish woman used her looks, cunning, and courage to move in and out of the ghetto in order to pass information or smuggle supplies and weapons.
One of the greatest misconceptions that students have is that as the war was drawing to a close, they believe that Jewish suffering ended as well. Even when the Nazis knew that the end was close at hand, they continued their rabid attempts to exterminate the Jews up to the very last second. They stepped up the killings, invented other ways to kill masses of Jews such as burning the barracks in which they were confined, or they evacuated the camps and forced marched their victims through the snow and cold of winter letting them drop or shooting them along the way. In Chapter Seven (Liberation), the various experiences and feelings Jewish survivors confronted are explored. Those feelings ranged from relief and pride in one's ability and good fortune to have survived to feelings of total loss, abandonment, betrayal, and guilt. "Death Against Life", found in Elie Wiesel's Night, describes how the Nazis attempted to liquidate Buchenwald as the Russians approached. The resistance stepped forward and prevented this one last attempt to bring about the total annihilation of the Jews and others in this concentration camp. The full emotional impact of liberation is best described in Lucille Eichengreen's "Liberation" from her book From Ashes To Life: My Memories of the Holocaust. Her depiction of the survivors as being haunted by guilt, loneliness, and devastation rather than hope is almost overwhelming. They survived when others did not. They trusted "gentiles" only to discover that the trust was misplaced. They lost everyone and everything and ended up with no one to be reunited with and no place to go. For most survivors, the living nightmare they experienced beginning in 1933 did not end in 1945. It simply took on a new, hellish twist.
What did survivors do? How did they attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives and families and start again as they so often had to do throughout history? These topics are addressed in Chapter Eight (The Days After). Anti-Semitic feelings did not end with the war's end, and Jewish life did not return to "normal". Most Jews who tried to return home found that their possessions were missing, destroyed, or occupied by others. Trusted friends with whom Jews left many of their valued possessions forgot what was and was not theirs, or they pleaded the "hardships of war" and they could no longer produce the possessions. This theme is played out in Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust: Conversations With the Sons and Daughters of Survivors. In one of the conversations, it is related how one child-survivor went looking for the things that her parents had left with "friends". The "friends" were shocked to see her. Finally, they invited her into their home and an awkward reunion ensued. With little recourse left, the young female survivor was asked to stay for dinner. She sat at a table covered with her mother's table clothe. The food was served on her parents' plates and eaten with her parents' silverware. The "friends" said nothing and sent her on her way after the meal without her parents' possessions. An emotionally powerful discussion is also presented in Isabella Leitner's Saving the Fragments: From Auschwitz to Auschwitz Survivor. In this book, she analyzes many of the questions that were asked by survivors, most significantly, "where and who am I and what is left?" This provides an excellent tie into the events in the news today. The German government, the Swiss banks, the Vatican, and a growing list of nations find themselves saying "We could have and should have done more. We are sorry." Acknowledging and dealing with the complicity (either active or passive) is painful for many. How does one even begin to convey the feelings, the pain, and the loss of those victimized by that complicity?
Up until very recently, there was never much said or discussed about resistance. In Chapter Nine (A Mosaic of Courage), the acts and groups of resistance are given a voice. Among the resistors are included those who secretly lived in hiding, striking German targets, to those who hid and protected Jews, to prisoners whose actions undermined their captors organized activities of death. The activities of one of the most noted protectors are described in Harvey Rosenfeld's Raoul Wallenberg: Angel of Rescue. The Swedish diplomat's efforts to rescue Jews, literally taking them from the grasp of the Nazis, is a compelling story of one man's efforts to do the right thing no matter what consequences he faced. His recognition of evil and his willingness to commit himself to act courageously in its face epitomizes the best you can expect of men under such trying circumstances. Hannah Senesh's Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary tells of a young woman willingly committing herself to the cause of righteousness and doing what she could to combat the evil being perpetrated by the Nazis. Although her impact was no where near as dramatic as Wallenberg's, she found within herself the courage and conviction to stand up against evil. Her conviction resulted in her capture and execution.
Since the destruction of the greatest evil humans have unleashed on other human beings, more and more survivors, their protectors, and liberators have stepped forward to tell their stories. They do so in order to testify that the events of the Holocaust did happen, or to honor those who died, or to compel a new generation to remember. In Chapter Ten (Echoing Reflections), several people attempt to share their insights, concerns, and the lessons associated with the Holocaust. Richard Rashke's "Esther" is an excerpt from Escape From Sobibor. He shares Esther's concerns about present-day anti-Semitism. She also questions the justice of the Nazi Trials (Nuremberg). The reach and pain of the Holocaust did not stop in 1945. In another segment taken from Helen Epstein's Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors, those born to survivors after the war share their experiences and their parents' attempts to deal with the emotional, psychological, and the physical scars they were left with. It is very evident that those scars cross-over from one generation to the next.
As educators, we are compelled to continue to tell the stories. There is no more fitting way to do this than to use the words and stories of the people who were the victims of this almost indescribable atrocity.
Images from the Holocaust allows us to do just that. If there is any one common theme that runs throughout this entire volume of literature, it is "TO TELL THE STORY, BEAR WITNESS, REMEMBER, AND LEARN THE LESSONS SO THAT IT CAN NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN". Our job in the classroom is to help students decode the messages and recognize and react appropriately to the roots of genocide (fear, anger, hatred, intolerance, and ignorance) which made the conduct of the Holocaust possible. We cannot, particularly as educators, be complacent. It was complacency that gave Hitler the opportunity to do what he did. The roots of genocide are still very visible and thriving in our world today. One only has to look at Rwanda and Bosnia to underscore the urgent nature of the mission facing educators and their students. In reality, we have gotten good at remembering. What we really need to do is to take those memories and challenge our students to become caring, sensitive, responsible, and respectful citizens of the global community.
Images from the Holocaust is an excellent vehicle to initiate the discussions and to take the first step towards creating a more tolerant world.