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Thinking about the Holocaust: How Does It Shape Our Consciousness Today?

September 19, 2013
by Michelle Bisson and Michele Clark We are publishing these personal reflections in the hope of stirring response from readers of several generations on the question of how the Holocaust has affected the Jewish and political consciousness of American Jews. How and when did you first learn about the Holocaust? To what extent did you learn about Jewish resistance, to what extent did you believe the “sheep to slaughter” model? How has the Holocaust informed your relationship to Jewish identity? To Israel? To political activism? Why do you think the Holocaust is so “popular” a subject in education and art today? Please respond in the comments section, below, or send longer reflections to —Editor MICHELLE BISSON: I learned about the Holocaust from my sixth-grade teacher. She told us about Joseph Mengele making lampshades out of Jewish people in concentration camps. Horrified, I went home and asked my mother about what I had learned. My mother confirmed it, but it didn’t seem possible. My mother said it was. She didn’t say why she hadn’t told me herself. Too painful, I figured: My mother was Hungarian and had come to this country with her family in the middle of World War II, at 16. She had relatives who had hidden in the woods, and relatives in concentration camps. Her favorite cousin had been living with my mother and her family in Budapest, but when she found out what was happening in Romania, where she was from, she had chosen to go back to her family and die with them. I was named after her. I hated this. I hated being named for someone who seemed, to me, to be a willing victim. (It did not matter to me that she was someone my mother loved.) I would soon myself become an unwilling victim of junior high school bullies. I refused to cry in front of them for the two years they tortured me, but I cried in private and I blamed myself. Something had to be wrong with me to earn this treatment. I hated, even more, my connection to my mother’s dead cousin. I read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I was horrified at what had been done to my people — but I also hated that, except for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the king of Denmark, no one, it seemed, had tried to resist or to rescue. 30,0000 Robert Cantors copyI was horrified at the anti-Semitism I learned existed in Europe and the United States — but I didn’t experience any of it growing up in my Jewish and Irish Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx. I was of the generation that saw African Americans bussed into our neighborhood, and I was horrified and enraged when the shop-owners closed their stores at 3:00, when school let out. These were the “good” black kids, just like us. They would no more rob a store than I would. I was proud that Jews were a huge part of the civil rights movement. I was proud to learn that my mother, as a young teen in Budapest, had defied the city’s laws preventing Jews from using the community swimming pool and crashed it with a friend. I was sad that this was the last defiant thing I had known her to do. Well, she had crossed Europe alone in 1941, in the middle of World War II, but that was more a question of survival. Her own father had been placed in a detention camp at the beginning of the war by the new fascist government, with his photo was on the front page of the newspaper: “Jewish Diamond Merchant Arrested.” But Hungary was not Germany, and because he was a World War I veteran, they let him go. He wanted to stay in Hungary. It was my grandmother who wanted to go, and it took her months to persuade him. When he finally agreed to leave, emigration laws had tightened. Only three people could travel on one passport, so my mother had to travel alone, meeting up with her parents and younger brother in Lisbon. She left a few days after the rest of her family, seen off by her Aunt Tillie. She took the train to Stuttgart, where she was met by a “safe” family, a non-Jewish family who were sympathizers, members of Europe’s own “underground railroad.” She was 16 and pretty, and the young man of the family, who thought she was a relative he’d never met, invited her to a nightclub. She went, and an hour into the festivities, German storm troopers came in. The whole place rose to salute and sing the Horst Wessel song. After that, my mother did not leave her room until her train came. She reunited with her family and they got stuck in Lisbon. It was December, 1941 and just when the first boat was supposed to go, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America was at war. First one boat didn’t go, and then the next. Their money was not returned. They thought they would have to stay in Lisbon for the duration of the war. With their funds almost depleted, alone in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language or have any connections, my grandfather wanted to turn back. Luckily, my grandmother refused. The third boat was the charm. The voyage was uneventful until, shortly before they reached the Western Hemisphere, a little boy fell into the engine room and was instantly killed. They had to bury him at sea, and the delay meant the ship was running out of fuel. The ship stopped in Virginia to find coal and, while there, the captain cabled President Roosevelt to ask if those passengers destined for America could come ashore, rather than going to Cuba first, as the ship was supposed to do. Roosevelt agreed as long as they could pay their fare to Ellis Island — and so my mother and her family, on George Washington’s birthday in 1942, set foot on American soil. The Jewish charity, HIAS, paid their fare, and they boarded the train and saw Jim Crow cars: “Whites Only,” “Colored Only.” Where in the world, they wondered, had they landed? They were handed white bread sandwiches; they thought the bread was some kind of cardboardish wrapping for the meat, and discarded it. They settled in a boarding house in Red Bank, New Jersey, where the owners served them pasta, which they dumped down the toilet as alien food. My grandfather and grandmother both got factory jobs. My mother, whose schooling had ended at grade eight in Hungary, got a job in a flower shop. They would not let her work in front of the store because of her accent. She was “foreign,” and nobody liked that. She met my father on a subway platform on her way to night school to improve her English. He was an American Jew. His mother hated her because she was foreign. My father probably loved her for it. She was docile. Her assertiveness had been tamped down by her displacement. Like what you're reading?I grew up fascinated by the Holocaust but horrified by what it had cost my mother. I wished she were American like everyone else, but I also felt superior in our difference. My father hated it when she spoke Hungarian to relatives, but I loved it. I wanted to learn, but was told it was too difficult. I learned “egan” and “nem” and “levash”: yes, no, and soup, my favorite food. I learned, as I grew up, that Jews were thought to be greedy, cheap, loud, uncivilized. I didn’t want to be any of those things. I wanted to be Jane Austen. Jane Austen, of course, was not Jewish. My brothers were bar mitsved, but we never, otherwise, walked into a synagogue. My mother’s father became a cantor in a synagogue in Harlem, where he had moved in the 1950s, but we did not attend services. My mother did not believe in a God who would create the Holocaust. My father had not been raised with religion. He had not been bar mitsved. Atheism made sense to me. We did celebrate the high holidays with chicken and matzoh ball dinners (remember: levash!) and, while my mother’s father was alive, a short Passover ceremony, but only my middle brother had any use for God. My mother would say, “People say, ‘I’m so lucky. God spared me’ but what about the millions of people he didn’t spare?” She had no more use for those people than she did for God. This made sense to me. As my mom got older, she got more obsessed with the Holocaust, and more and more literature on it started to come out. In the 1960s and even into the 1970s, an idea had caught on that to creatively depict the Holocaust was to demean it. No art could capture what had happened. No art ever can, of course, but without it, how do we know what we’ve experienced? I myself was completely engrossed by Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and stayed up all night to read it. My aunt Alice had lived through something like that: Stood up in a firing line by the Hungarian Nazis while holding her infant son in her arms, she had been let go at the last minute by a Nazi soldier who abstained from shooting her because, he said, “You look like my sister.” But he shot Alice’s own sister, who stood in line next to her. Aunt Alice and her baby fled into the woods. My mother read everything she could about the Holocaust, Hungary, and Hungarians. Now that I am approaching the age she was then, I get it: We hunger for our childhood, we want to understand our lives. In my twenties and thirties, however, I just felt annoyed with her. Get on with it. Get over it. Ugh. I was so proud that she and her mother had known to escape, but I was disgusted that she was otherwise so passive — and I was so upset that her cousin had gone home to die. As I grew older myself, I started reading more Holocaust literature, and buying it for my mother. It became a bond between us. Not that it prevented me from saying things like, “All you care about is the Holocaust. You’re obsessed. Live in the now” — but I was growing up, finally, just a little. Maybe I was less ashamed of being Jewish. Now that my mother is dead, I have almost entirely stopped reading Holocaust literature. I did, however, reread the notes she wrote up about her life, and discovered that her cousin Malka did not want to go back to Romania to die with her parents, but that the government demanded that all Romanians return home. Malka knew that meant she would die, and she did not want to go, but my mother’s family felt they had to comply with the law, so they put her on a train. My mother felt guilty all her life. I was her attempt at rebirth and reparations. And she got a kid who yelled at her about the Holocaust. I can say that having a mother with personal experience of the Holocaust gives me a connection with it that goes beyond lampshades. I imagine how I would have reacted had I been her, or my grandfather. I fear I might have turned back. I cannot fault them for lack of courage toward my namesake as I can’t say I would have been any more brave. I can say that, although my mother is now dead, the Holocaust lives within me. Michelle Bisson has been a writer, editor, and, in recent years, a children’s school library publisher. She remains amazed at how “popular” Holocaust literature is in the schools. MICHELE CLARK: I was born in 1945 in New York City, a month after the atom bomb was dropped, first on the city of Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. This can’t be true, of course — I couldn’t have known when I was 1 or 2, but that is how I have always felt it: There was never a time. The destruction of European Jewry wasn’t called The Holocaust then. That phrase came much later. We said, “the camps,” which was a private reference, almost a secret, not public and grand as the phrase The Holocaust has become. Only other Jews knew what was meant. The grown-ups around me hissed or whispered “He was in the camps in the same way they talked about other shames like cancer. That was all they said, that was the end of the discussion. “He was in the camps indicated someone who had seen the worst, someone Jewish but not like us. We had not seen the worst. There was not exactly sympathy expressed, and there was not exactly not-sympathy, but something more like fear, and then silence. The camps indicated something terrible that had happened to the Jews of Europe, which I knew had to do with barbed wire and death. The adults around me, my parents, my many aunts and uncles, were all born in New York City, but as of the late 1940s not one of them had successfully crossed the great divide into the real America. Several had graduated from college, four uncles had served in the armed forces, but now that those things were accomplished they were all back living on the Lower East Side of New York, involved in small family businesses — a kosher butcher, a delicatessen, and a small paper products wholesaler. Uncle Ben had tried to become a teacher but had failed the oral exam because of “unsatisfactory pronunciation,” which was a notorious code for eliminating Jewish applicants. Uncle Harry had spent his Army service in Washington D.C. working in a physics lab, but found his promotions blocked, perhaps because he was Jewish, perhaps because he did not fit in socially, which was what he told me: “I didn’t shmooze.” Perhaps these were the same thing. In any case, both of them had come home, and now, in the late 1940s, they stood in their father’s kosher butcher store wearing stained white coats and growling at customers, “You here again?!” It was not clear that we would ever be let into the wider culture, and in that metaphorical and psychological way it was not clear that we were safe. The historian Hasia Diner has called the Lower East Side “the epicenter of American Jewish memory,” a limnal space, both symbolic and actual, where American Jews “dwelled among themselves while waiting for permission to enter the real America.” The process of permission inevitably involved rebelling against the immigrant grandparents and the rules of Orthodoxy, but none of the adults around me had done this. They were still religiously observant, still beholden economically and emotionally to their parents — and so they were often unhappy, restless, and afraid. This is what what I have deduced, having thought about it on and off for many years. I also have the evidence of my own nervous system, inherited from them: a nervous system that I have tried, sometimes successfully, to tame, a nervous system that often feels under threat when nothing has happened. Which came first, the nervous system or the social conditions? I am not sure. Perhaps they evolved together. I am trying to paint several pictures here: that something terrible happened just before I was born; that polite forms of anti-Semitism were still alive and well in the United States; that there was also that affliction of modern life, anxiety, American and Jewish, the kind that is the staple of sitcom writers and stand-up comics, the kind that made Kierkegaard — notably not Jewish — tremble, Franz Kafka great, and Woody Allen hilarious. Hebrew School at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights happened on Monday evenings, Wednesday afternoon, and Sunday morning. The triviality or tedium or just plain bad teaching that occurred in post-war Jewish education has been written about by many people, including Philip Roth in his famous short story The Conversion of the Jews, in which a rabbi with a voice is described as “soul battering.” But I loved Hebrew school. I loved, and still love, the actual block letters of the Hebrew alphabet, I loved learning the prayers, lighting candles, praying to a God I had no doubt existed, walking home from Saturday services on a bright noon and feeling that a space of light and kindly silence separated my father and me from the rest of the getting-and-spending world. I thought Jews were the best people in the world, and I would ponder how other good people qualified for heaven. Was there a special section? Franklin Roosevelt, for example, or George Washington -- both of whom I knew to be very, very good -- where did they go? It was in the Dalet class, 6th grade, that our teacher Mrs. Eliovson told us the truth: skin-made-into-lampshades and all. She said they came for the observant Jew and the Jew who tried to hide in assimilation — she was particularly scornful of that one, that one and the convert. They came for those who were half-Jewish and those who were one-quarter. She said they had never found Hitler’s body. Maybe he was still alive in Bolivia or Argentina, just waiting. She was bitter about Jews who had not taken Hitler seriously. She was a tall woman, perhaps 50, with a large bosom and a fleshy back. She had a strong Middle-European accent. She had lived in Israel when it was still Palestine. How she became a (probably poorly paid) teacher in Queens I will never know. She had a fierce manner and was a demanding instructor. I was her best student. At some point later, she loaned me her copy of The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim, a noted psychoanalyst, was an Austrian Jew by birth and had been interned by the Nazis in their early years when it was still possible to be ransomed out of the camps. His book indicted the Jews of Europe, including Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, for not defending themselves, for “grovel[ing]” and then “walk[ing] themselves to the gas chambers.” He accused the victims of being too attached to material possessions. He said they were murdered because they feared living without their grand pianos and fine rugs and so they did not flee the continent in time, as he had. This was the only perspective I was offered, other than the perspective of horror. Did Mrs. Eliovson tell us all of it in one day or over time? Did I rush home and tell my mother or did I keep it inside and let it out to my parents bit by bit? I don’t remember. I know that I was changed. I know that even years later my mother blamed my teacher for my sorrows. The need for safety is the cornerstone of our psychological life, and the amygdala is anxiety’s home — a round lump at the base of our brain, the part we share with every lizard. If my synapses had been a little shaky before they met Mrs. Eliovson, they were surely in shivery over-drive for a long time after. What to do? I became obsessed with The War, obsession being the futile way the advanced areas of our mind try to calm the lizard within. I both dreaded and longed to read about The War and The Camps, reading being the only outlet at that time. There were no movies except Judgment at Nuremberg, which wasn’t about the Jews, no speakers or memorials that I knew about, nor any television shows. Although I believed, as Mrs. Eliovson had said, that there was no escape, my daydreams revolved around reviewing what clothes I would take to a possible Secret Annex. As Anne Frank left her home in Amsterdam, in the middle of a hot summer day, she had worn “two undershirts, three pairs of underpants, a dress and over that a skirt, a jacket, a raincoat, two pairs of stockings, heavy shoes, a cap, a scarf and lots more [because] No Jew in our situation would dare leave the house with a suitcase.” My dresser and my closet stood at the foot of the bedroom I shared with my sister, and night after night I would mentally review my wardrobe for possibilities. My parents did not buy books because, after all, why would you do that when there is a public library? But we did own a large one volume called The Jewish Encyclopedia. Under W for World War there were two, now famous, black and white photos from the camps. One shows emaciated men lying on bunks three rows high, looking straight into the camera; one of these is Eli Wiesel. The second is three naked women clasping their arms under their bosoms and running in the rain. Behind them a gray man wearing a war helmet, black boots, a belted uniform. On Saturday evenings when I was babysitting my brother and sister, I would read and re-read these few pages about The War, look at the pictures, close the book, then feel compelled an hour later to look again, then close the book, then look again, until they came home. My theory, unarticulated, went something like this: If I look at these pictures long enough then I will no longer feel afraid. At the same time, I knew that this didn’t work, that I still was afraid. Finally I tearfully confessed this ritual to my parents, who became anxious in their turn about the fact that I had these fears. It became my problem, Michele’s problem — she thinks too much about the Nazis and The War. (She is not carefree, like a real American child.) What to do? They were modern. Perhaps they consulted the family doctor. They took me to see a psychiatrist in Upper Manhattan. He had a strong European accent and a musty-smelling office. He did not ask me about the pictures in the encyclopedia or about my fears, instead he wanted me to talk about my mother and father. He asked me to draw some pictures. When the next appointment came around, I sat in his waiting room and wept and dug my heels around the legs of a chair. So my parents took me home and hid the book in the back of a back closet. I found it and continued to look, in secret. I limited myself to once a month. That worked pretty well. The adults had failed me but I didn’t know how to say that or what it meant. And surely I was a difficult child, too precocious and too scared in equal measure, too big-mouthed and too small. At 14 I attended a ten-day United Synagogue Youth encampment, where I was introduced to the possibility of atheism and immediately embraced it. So there it was: The grown-ups didn’t know how to escape the cattle cars and there was no God. I stopped going to synagogue, even on the High Holidays. I stopped reading about the camps, and moved on to writing beat poetry and finding a boyfriend. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .” Black turtlenecks and black sneakers were my style choice, Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village my hang-out after school. When, at 19, I married an experimental filmmaker from New England, a Mayflower descendant, my mother lay in bed in a darkened room and wept for three days. In this way, and with much confusion and pain, I achieved that longed-for individuation that was supposed to lead to the real America. Years went by, as did that first marriage. What had been the private horror of the camps became the universal tragedy of The Holocaust, a slow transformation that came to me dimly as if from a poorly transmitted radio broadcast — for I was a universalist now, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, then leading consciousness-raising groups for women. Yes, I still read everything by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and once or twice a year a memoir of The Holocaust (never a movie), but Jewishly that was my limit. By the late 1980’s I was safely and happily married to a second (and final) husband and my parents had even become mildly fond of him, even though he is not Jewish. I was safely raising two daughters and working in a women’s psychotherapy practice. Since then I have played catch-up and return. I am religiously active, though I don’t know what I actually believe. I want to, in some way, learn about all I couldn’t hear or bear when I was younger. And I want to defend Jews and the State of Israel even while I disagree with most of its prevalent policies. So I teach a seminar on “The Psychology of Extraordinary Evil” to my counseling students, who tend to believe “that people are really good at heart.” I am a member of two academic chat groups on anti-Semitism. Reading about The Holocaust makes me sad now, terribly sad, but not afraid. What scares me now, gives me that same paralyzed childhood feeling of terror, is the rise in worldwide excoriation of Israel. But that is another story. Michelle Clark is a licensed professional counselor and a faculty member in the Goddard College graduate program in psychology and counseling, where she teaches a seminar in “The Psychology of Extraordinary Evil.”