With Holocaust Remembrance Day just passed, I again had reason to look at how we have come up with new ways of Holocaust denial that no longer include denying the Holocaust happened. I talked about this subject before. I encountered some newer techniques recently, that intentionally or unintentionally, serve to dilute the historical import of the Holocaust, or even of history itself. I wandered across some other things too. So, I’ve decided to meander my way through my various thoughts on the tidbits I have seen recently.
I’ll start off with some modern-day reminders that anti-Semitism remains alive and well and end with some dissection of an argument against the history of the Holocaust, or any history for that matter, having value at all. Sit back but hold on. You are in for a long and winding ride. Much like I did when I talked about Blade Runner 2049.
WHAT IS IT WITH ME AND DISCLAIMERS?
As I delve into anti-Semitism and other things for a bit, settle yourself. I will not be commenting on Israel, the current violence and protests in Gaza, the President’s decision to move the U.S. embassy, or anything of that nature. The topic at hand is the wrongness of anti-Semitisim and the Holocaust. Various opinions on the current political maneuvering around Israel do not change that fact.
Also, yes, this blog focusses on the Holocaust. Yes, other genocides have happened. Yes, groups of humans have committed atrocities against other groups of humans prior to and since the Holocaust. No, I’m not saying those genocides don’t matter. Again, settle down. I just happen to be talking about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism here because of things I have encountered recently.
My thanks to friends like Bryan Alexander, Jon Gold, Tom Elliot, Ken Burk, and Ed Chusid in that regard. However, if you dear readers have a problem with anything I say below, don’t blame those folks. I am my own, opinionated person.
ANTI-SEMITISM REMINDS US IT’S NEVER BEEN DEAD (AND IT PROBABLY NEVER WILL BE)
I don’t know for sure if anti-Semitism is on the rise. I believe there is a strong possibility it is.
While such sentiments have been publicly discouraged in Western / European based society, including the United States, for some time, it feels like something has shifted recently. People from those areas appear to feel as if the chains are off at last. They can once again openly express and act upon their anti-Semitic urges. To say nothing of other areas in the world.
Further, I have come to believe that hate, intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice seem to be on the rise in general, at least in this country and, it seems, in Europe. An increase in anti-Semitism would be in keeping with all of that.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking such matters for four decades, anti-Semitic incidents increased nearly 60% from 2016 to 2017 in the United States. This includes a 41% increase in bomb threats.
I’m sure you recall the bomb threats called in to Jewish community centers last year. You no doubt recall the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. Or the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” in a deliberate echo of Nazi rallies under Hitler.
But do you remember that in April 2014, someone shot up a Jewish Community Center in Kansas, killing three people? A search of his home turned up a red shirt with a swastika on it, anti-Semitic literature, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and lists of local kosher places and synagogues. By the way, while the shooter clearly hoped to target Jewish people, the three people he killed were all Christian.
A Pew Research report noted an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe in 2015. In 2018, Pew Research reported that, for many Central or Eastern European countries, 1 out of 10 adults, or more, remain unwilling to accept Jews as their fellow citizens. For several of those countries, the numbers were 1 out of 5, or more. 10% may seem like a small number, but I have had experience with those odds using 10-sided dice. That 1 comes up a lot more frequently than you might think.
That begs a question. Why am I unsure anti-Semitism is on the rise? Not because I doubt the numbers or seriousness of the incidents. Rather it’s because I know that anti-Semitism has never gone away. It’s been there all along in Western European culture, which, as stated, includes the U.S. So, am I seeing a true increase, or just the old hidden rot finally coming to the surface?
To quote Bryan Alexander, a futurist:
[W]hat keeps you up at night, looking into the future?
The persistence of Christian antisemitism, for one.
HOW HARD CAN IT BE TO DENOUCE ANTI-SEMITISM?
I’m not done with our modern-day anti-Semitism. Let’s delve into another tidbit.
In March of this year, a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives proposed the following measure:
[W]e urge law enforcement to recognize these white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations and to pursue the criminal elements of these domestic terrorist organizations in the same manner and with the same fervor used to protect the United States from other manifestations of terrorism.
It died in less than a minute in sub-committee. When asked why the quick death, a member of the sub-committee explained, “We have no expertise on it…How could we determine these groups are terrorists? We don’t know the federal guidelines on terrorism.”
He does have a fair point. Terrorism means one thing to the general public and another to law enforcement. And that detail does matter. It is entirely possible for a hate group to not be a terrorist group under law enforcement’s definition of the term.
But does it mean that the matter should not be debated, questioned, researched, or given a chance to be modified, prior to dismissal?
Now the press played that dismissal up. CNN ran the headline “A resolution denouncing neo-Nazis dies in 36 seconds.” That’s not what the resolution really was about and not quite why it happened.
All the same, some of us seem to be walking on eggshells of late when it comes to calling out anti-Semitic groups such as the neo-Nazis for their attitudes.
LESSONS IN THE WAKE OF CHARLOTTESVILLE
My own hopes on that front in the wake of Charlottesville were thoroughly dashed. I thought, how hard can it be?
Say you’re Right-leaning or ultra-conservative. After Charlottesville, maybe you felt a lot of folks were lumping you in with those marching with swastikas. Maybe you see no problem with statues of Confederate generals, but you certainly are no neo-Nazi. So, when people are talking about it, how hard could it have been to say, “Hey, I think the statues are cool, but I am not good with neo-Nazis”? How hard should it have been to say, “I sympathize with some historical societies’ concerns, but ramming a car through a crowd of people and killing one is not okay”?
After Charlottesville I waited for certain groups of people to say that. I even went online and asked questions to prompt them to say it. Remember, the march was organized by the alt-Right but called “Unite the Right.” I went so far as to point out the alt-Right were the folks who first decided to lump the entire Right-leaning populace with them.
What I got was defense. After defense. After defense. Of the people marching. Of showing up with an arsenal of weaponry and armor for a peaceful demonstration. Of killing Heather Heyer. What I did not get was a single denial that “I’m not a neo-Nazi.” The closest I got was “not everyone there was a neo-Nazi.” Not a denial, but another defense. I spent two weeks trying to get any of the folks to denounce neo-Nazis or ant-Semitism.
Why should that be so hard for so many in our society?
THE “ALL LIVES MATTER” APPROACH TO THE HOLOCAUST
All this was on my mind as I encountered stuff around this years’ Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah. The date is based on the Hebrew calendar and commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Why bring that up? Because, as I have been reminded recently, context and a deeper understanding of the specifics of the Holocaust matter.
Among various things I saw were news items, memes, and commentary about how this was not the only genocide. That the West overemphasizes it like it’s a huge thing. What about the Trail of Tears? What about deaths and exploitation of untold numbers of Africans at the hands of various colonial powers? Some mentioned the Armenian genocide.
Again, I totally agree. All these other things matter too.
Maybe it’s my privilege showing. Maybe it’s that I am a product of the West’s culture. But to me, in this particular context, it ended up sounding like the “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” responses to “Black Lives Matter.” Correct. Law enforcement lives matter. All lives matter. Which is why black lives also matter. By asserting black lives matter, no one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one is saying that other genocides or atrocities didn’t happen or lack importance.
Nor is the West trying to ignore the roles it played in many of those genocides and atrocities by talking about the Holocaust. How much more accepting of your culture’s past complicity in such things can you be then to commemorate your culture going so far around the bend as to do it in its own house in horrific numbers?
I don’t want to get into some game of Jews being more victims than Native Americans or sub-Saharan Africans. Remembering the Holocaust is not about saying anything like that. It’s not about pretending other victims don’t exist or that other histories should not also be learned, understood and remembered. No one is in ascendancy over anyone else.
THE WEST HAS REASON TO HIGHLIGHT THE HOLOCAUST
But if you are confused as to why the Holocaust stands out so much for the West, here are some little factoids.
THE WELL-DOCUMENTED GENOCIDE
The government that carried out this atrocity was very, very administratively organized. It kept lots of records. It filmed things. And as the Allies found out more and more of what they did, they too made serious attempts to archive what they found. As a result, we have a detailed historical record the likes of which we sadly do not have for a lot of those other atrocities.
Again, that is not an excuse to ignore or fail to learn about those other events. It also does not mean some other atrocities were not as well documented. I am sure we can find very good details of some events from ancient Chinese records. Or from other cultures that similarly recorded everything in detail. It’s just that with the Holocaust we have some very good records, complete with photographs and film, of the events that unfolded.
GENOCIDE WITH ALL THE MODERN CONVENIENCES
Here’s another factoid. The application of modern, developed world techniques and industrial might to the situation. That application I think tends to fascinate at the same time it horrifies. The image of modern, efficient, assembly-line killing of people as if they were vermin. It should horrify.
Again, I’m not saying humanity has not done similar before or since. I am also disagreeing with certain historical analyses I have encountered recently that suggest that it was not efficient and all that jazz. That is was almost accidental, oopsie, this just happened because there was this big war, and the Germans took all this territory, and then suddenly didn’t know what to do with the Jews even though anti-Semitism wasn’t a driver of the Third Reich, really.
Is that what we say was happening when even before the Final Solution, Germans locked up Jews and other undesirable’s or committed them to labor camps, while systematically looting belongings of camp internees, processing them and rendering them into gold or cash deposits? No, I don’t think so. Again, we have records of the “machines” created around the labor and death camps.
THE GENOCIDE WITH HUGE NUMBERS DURING A SHORT TIME SPAN
And here’s another factoid. The vast number of dead in such a short time.
17 to 20 million European residents died as a result of the Holocaust.
About 6 million, or 2 out of 3, of Europe’s Jews died. Of those that survived, most were permanently displaced from their homes and homelands.
What’s more, the Holocaust does not cover the entirety of anti-Semitic actions during Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent leadership of Germany. It usually is defined as only taking place from 1941 to 1945. Four years. 20 million civilians or prisoners of war killed. That’s not counting the horrific number of casualties from fighting the war in Europe itself.
This is a human tragedy. It is staggering.
I will be the first to admit that Western nations teach and emphasize a Western view of history. I will be the first to admit that Western peoples need to be more aware of world history, including the messes they made in it. But, it is not any wonder that the Western world takes a moment to recognize this particular atrocity, done, as I said before, by normal people, not demons.
A REMINDER ABOUT WHY KNOWING ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST MATTERS
Which leads me to another thing I encountered along my way. Former NBA player Ray Allen explained in an article why he, an African American, made a point to visit Auschwitz and repeatedly visits the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. In it he touches not only on why people seek to remember the Holocaust, but also why it has import not just to white folks of the West, but to all humanity.
A BASEBALL ANECDOTE THAT ISN’T ABOUT SPORTS
But first, I’ll diverge down a scenic route for a moment. In my life, I am surrounded by sports enthusiasts and, in particular, baseball lovers. I, however, don’t really do too much deep diving into sports, either as a participant or a fan. When a Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball came out, I watched so I could better understand the baseball folks in my life. I confess to being enthralled by it. Even though, like all documentaries, I know it leaves things out, cherry-picks events, gets others wrong, and is otherwise imperfect.
During the course of the documentary, it covers the Negro Leagues. In particular, it contains interviews with Buck O’Neil, a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs. He played and was friends with the famous pitcher Satchel Paige, who nicknamed Buck, “Nancy.” Satchel had his reasons, but I’m not getting into them here.
Mr. O’Neil relayed how, once, when traveling to their next game, Paige drove the two of them, rather than taking the bus. They got to their destination early, before their rooms were ready, and took the time to explore the city. I believe they were in Charleston.
They drove to a historical site, the location of the slave auctions on Drum Island. The two of them stood there in silence for a time, as an abstract of their history was made tangible.
And we stood there, he and I, maybe ten minutes, not saying a word, just thinking.
And after about ten minutes he said, “You know what, Nancy?”
I said, “What, Satchel?”
He said, “Seems like I’ve been here before.”
I said, “Me, too.”
I know that my great grandfather could have been there. My great grandmother could have been auctioned off on that block.
Both men had a moment when past and present, their current struggles and those experiences by their predecessors, all collided and gave them a greater insight on where they came from and who they were at that instant.
RAY ALLEN SPEAKS ON WHAT THE HOLOCAUST MEANS TO HIM
So back to Ray Allen. He’s a black man in America, who played professional sports. He certainly can empathize with some of O’Neil’s and Paige’s experiences.
He admits to having a lifelong fascination the Holocaust. I encourage you to read the entire article linked above. I’m quoting a large part of it below because, rather than paraphrase, I’ll let Mr. Allen tell you in his own words what he gets out of studying the Holocaust. In the process he answers some of the “All Lives Matter” argument above and some of the criticism of visiting historical sites like Auschwitz I’ll be discussing later in this blog.
Then I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., for the first time. It was 1998, and I was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. I was in D.C. meeting our owner, Herb Kohl, over the summer. We had some time free time on my last day in the city, and Mr. Kohl suggested we go to the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. I’ll never forget how I felt after those two hours in there — I could have spent two days. My immediate feeling was that everyone needs to go there.
There was one room in particular, though, that I think about often. It’s filled with photos of Jews from a town in Poland. The pictures line the walls and extend up toward the sky, where light floods in from a window. Almost 90% of the people in the images were sent to their death. Before they were taken to concentration camps or executed, they would leave their prized possessions behind with friends or family.
The people of these Jewish communities were pushed to the absolute limit of their human instincts. They just wanted to survive. And from that, the tales of brotherhood and camaraderie are so awe-inspiring. It was a reminder of what the human spirit is capable of — both for good and evil.
Honestly … it made me feel sort of irrelevant. Which was a strange thought to have as a young NBA player who was supposed to be on top of the world. I was realizing that there were things outside of my bubble that mattered so much more. I wanted my teammates to feel that as well. So every team I played on after that, whenever we were in D.C. playing the Wizards, I would ask our coach if we had time to go through the museum. Every visit was different, but each guy came out thanking me for taking us there. I could see in their eyes that they had a different perspective on life after that experience.
I thought I knew what the Holocaust was, and what it meant. I went to Poland with a few close friends to learn more. But I wasn’t prepared for how deeply the visit would affect me. I had seen so many documentaries and films on Auschwitz, but nothing really prepares you for being there. The first thing I felt when I walked through those iron gates was … heavy. The air around me felt heavy. I stood on the train tracks where the prisoners of the camp would arrive, and I felt like I could hear the trains coming to a halt. I had to take a breath to center myself. It was so immediate. So overwhelming.
We walked through the barracks and gas chambers and what I remember most is what I heard: nothing. I’ve never experienced silence like that. Apart from footsteps, the complete lack of sound was almost jarring. It’s eerie and sobering. You’re standing in these rooms where so much death has taken place and your mind is trying to come to terms with all that’s happened in this space.
One question keeps repeating over and over and over in your mind: How can human beings do this to one another?
How does somebody process that? You can’t.
This is not history. This is humanity. This is now. This is a living lesson for us as a people.
. . . .
The Holocaust was about how human beings — real, normal people like you and me — treat each other.
. . . .
When I returned home to America, I got some very disheartening messages directed toward me on social media regarding my trip. Some people didn’t like the fact that I was going to Poland to raise awareness for the issues that happened there and not using that time or energy to support people in the black community.
I was told my ancestors would be ashamed of me.
I know there are trolls online and I shouldn’t even pay attention, but that one sort of got to me. Because I understood where they were coming from. I understand that there are plenty of issues in our own country right now, but they were looking at my trip the wrong way. I didn’t go to Poland as a black person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person — I went as a human being.
It’s easy to say “I went to make sure these things don’t happen again.” But I went to learn about the true reality of what happened during the Holocaust, and what we can take from that. The people who believe that I am not spending my time the way the right way … well, they’re missing the entire point. We shouldn’t label people as this thing or that thing. Because by doing so, you create these preconceived notions, which is how we get into these horrible situations in the first place.
We have to do a better job breaking through ignorance and the close-mindedness and the divisions that are plaguing our society in 2017.
That sticks with me. The remembrance of the Holocaust isn’t about color, or religion, or culture, or region. It’s about humanity. It’s about bridging those gaps, not making them wider.
FOR ONCE, A MEME I LIKE
Then I encountered this meme via my friend Jon Gold, reminding us where intolerance, fear-mongering, and us-vs.-them thinking can lead.
If you know me, you know I am not a fan of memes. And this one does simplify. But I think the main point is still very well taken. Both Mr. Allen and the meme are what I was getting at in my previous blog on the Holocaust. That the study of history, including this history, has a value. You can learn from it. You can gain understanding not just of it, but of where we are now. That past and present can collide and give you greater insight.
WE DON’T REMEMBER THE HOLOCAUST AS MUCH AS WE ONCE DID – THIS SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE
Then came along one other piece. Reports about a survey which found that fewer and fewer American adults had an understanding of the Holocaust.
To some extent, that is to be expected. Let’s face it, despite a huge number of movies, documentaries, books, and articles, the average person on the street probably has less of an understanding of World War II than would have been in play 20, or even 10 years ago. Our first-hand witnesses are aged or already dead. There are less and less people we know who were directly connected to those events.
Our understanding of events fades with the distance of time, unless we make a study of those events. We also have less understanding of World War I, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the like. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the average person on the street has less comprehension of the Holocaust than he or she might have had in past decades.
Here’s a link to the study itself. Some of the questions seem a little wonky to me. Like unfair political survey questions, slanting things perhaps certain ways.
I personally would love if people knew what Auschwitz was, but if they are familiar with the concept and not the name, I would still be happy. So, responses to questions in the survey in that regard don’t concern me too much.
Also, the survey does not really define terms. What does it mean by millennials, a term defined differently by almost every person I know? Where do the people surveyed live? Are there regional, cultural, economic, or educational factors in play here?
Honestly, I am not sure what the survey shows other than folks on the street don’t have at their fingertips textbook facts. That, to me, is not what understanding history is really about.
If I recite dates without understanding what went on, do I understand the history? If I understand the events, but can’t recite the specific dates, don’t I have resources that can help me fill in the gaps? Just like a dictionary helps me with my spelling. My need to use it does not make me bad at literary analysis. Nor does my need to look up the specific date of an event or the name of a city mean I don’t understand the history.
What I took heart from in the survey is that 93% of those surveyed agreed that, “All students should learn about the Holocaust while at school.” Also 80% believe “It is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it doesn’t happen again.”
While the survey at first blush seems alarming, I’m not sure it is. I am more alarmed by anti-Semitic incidents and sentiments seemingly on the rise. And growing issues with hate, intolerance, and prejudice.
A HOLOCAUST DISCUSSION BOILED DOWN: DON’T BOTHER REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST…AND LIBERALS ARE TOTALITARIAN
But that survey caused my friend Bryan Alexander to kick off another of his Facebook discussions. They do tend to be fodder for my own blogs. Which lead to some interesting points. Including many I touched upon above. But it was the points of a few people that really stood out to me. And reminded me again of the inventive ways people are coming up with to disempower the substance of the Holocaust while sounding like they are doing anything but.
I noticed a few people talking about, in particular, Western liberals’ interpretation and presentation of the Holocaust. The positions essentially went along the lines of, “Western liberals tend to universalize, emote, and rewrite the history of the Holocaust. Something, something, gazpacho (to use to the words of Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station). Totalitarianism.”
No. I did not know what was meant by “universalize, emote, and rewrite.” Not defined but used by two different commenters like we all were supposed to know what the terms meant. I searched online, assuming they were some academic terms or theories I did not know. No luck.
No. I don’t know how the first part connects with the last. Believe me. I tried very hard to figure it out. You can substitute “yadda, yadda, yadda” from Seinfeld if you are more comfortable with that instead of gazpacho. It gives about the same illumination.
GUESSING AT THE TERMS
The best I could figure out was universalizing* meant to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to other human experience, and in particular, to draw some greater lessons about humanity from it. According to the commentary, avoid that because every situation is unique and doing that appropriates instead of understands the dead, and ignores the specific contexts. There is no universality in experiences.
Emoting* is connected to universalizing. One commenter talked about the Holocaust being a trigger for liberals wanting to emote about the human condition, again universalizing when there is no universality in experiences. Also it may have something to do with trying to inspire guilt.
The rewrite* business I have found harder to figure out. Not that I didn’t know what the term meant, but that I didn’t know what specifically had been allegedly rewritten in this instance. The one commenter mentioned liberals creating a narrative to make them feel better about themselves and allow them to assert a moral superiority. However, what he described was not rewriting the history but instead describing people using their showy, demonstrated concern for the history as a sign they stand on moral high ground. “See how much more pious than you I am!”
(*After I drafted this blog, one of the commenters kindly responded with definitions, and I appear fairly correct in my assessment of the terms above. As for the issue of rewriting, he pointed me to David Cesarani’s The Final Solution. I have not read it, so I still don’t have details. However, according to some reviews of the book I have seen, I suspect what he considers liberal rewriting is not rewriting at all. I also suspect I would appreciate the book in many places, and, at others, scream at it. Basically, please don’t tell me I’m rewriting history because you now believe that, while Hitler was anti-Semitic, that was not really a significant part of his platform and did not play into his rise to power or his regime prior to the Final Solution. See Mein Kampf, the reaction thereto, and many other events prior to the Final Solution, that serve as primary sources contradicting that notion. One of the book reviews I read was by one of the commenters I mention here. It’s a great review actually. But the rewrite I found, in both the review and the comments I’m discussing, was the attempt to dilute German responsibility. As I pointed out in my prior blog, the Germans went down the road they did for understandable reasons from their perspective. But that does not take away from the fact they did go down that road. Or that some contemporaries of the time adjudged it evil.)
After considering everything those commenters said, I am pretty sure this blog is full of universalizing, emoting and rewriting, by their standards. I find I am perfectly fine with that.
CONTRADICTIONS AND INCONSISTENCIES
The thing was, the statements the commenters made contradicted each other in places. That’s part of what made connecting dots, even with latter explanations difficult. It seemed that further comments simply included additional contradictions, or assumptions that did not match up to real world observations.
As an example of the contradictions, in the same comment, one person described the holocaust being not thought of as unique and then described how you could not apply the Holocaust to anything beyond itself because of its uniqueness. Another commenter said universalizing, emoting and rewriting played into neo-Nazi beliefs of the uniqueness of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Remember, universalizing is not taking into account the uniqueness or the context of the history. Which is it folks? Unique, or not. I’m confused.
The one decried remembrance of the holocaust as totalitarian training and propaganda. The other said it aided neo-Nazis and created a moral danger similar to genocide albeit while lacking the horror.
I was left to conclude that what they were probably really doing was trying to troll liberals. They did not have to single out liberals if they wanted to point out that some people do propagandize their devotion to the Holocaust for their own political and cultural ends. People from several different political ideologies do this. And it ignored the elephant in the room. The alt-Right, White Supremacist and White Nationalist groups who instead spread anti-Semitism and have growing political power in Europe.
Also, the two posters weren’t consistent in their message, while using consistent terms. That’s a clue that those were buzzwords, without substance behind them. The failure to answer the questions of a responder to their comments further cements the idea their ideas lacked weight.*
(*Although they later responded to me to an extent, I did not find what they had to say illuminating. Rather it contained more contradictory positions. As someone else noted, the fallacies and logical gaps in statements which red-flagged the act of making those mistakes was kind of amusing and frustrating.)
ONCE MORE: HISTORY. DOES. MATTER.
But what they said hit one of my very raw nerves. As I explained in a previous blog, history matters a great deal to me. And I strongly believe it serves a purpose beyond merely being that subject you were forced to study during third period at school. If we don’t know where we have been, how can we know where we are going? Not just for Western history, but for human history.
I don’t know if those gentlemen understood this, but their statements boiled down to, study history if you want to as a hobby, but don’t touch it beyond that or bad things happen. Totalitarianism. Indoctrination and brainwashing. Harming our youth. Don’t take any lessons from it, because each situation is unique. Make no comparisons. No parallels. Certainly make no conclusions about human beings from it.
This is a variation on, “You can’t learn from history, because each event is specific and will never happen that exact same way again.”
You know what? It will never rain the exact same way again. The sidewalk will never ice up the exact same way again. Fires in the fireplace never burn the same way twice. Each time is unique. But we can learn lessons from each one. I learn from my previous experiences how to safely drive in the rain, or avoid slipping on ice, or build a better fire. Because physics remain consistent. Because life experiences matter.
One commenter said that history is taught and learned devoid of critical thinking. Actually, it’s one of the best training grounds for critical thinking.
Can I draw parallels throughout human history, i.e., universalize? You bet.
Look at the science. Human DNA remains what it was 2,000 years ago, 500 years ago, 100 years ago, through today. That means DNA has been causing humans to have the same brain structures throughout that time. As a result, the mechanics of how we tend to think, emote, etc. have not changed either.
Sure, one culture can be triggered by things that may not triggered other cultures. But fear-mongering happens. People can be manipulated by fears. People can learn how to and desire to manipulate people by those fears. And it can lead to consequences. That’s not over-universalizing. That’s acknowledging that regardless of skin color, religion, region, culture, we are still all human beings. As Mr. Allen said, “This is not history. This is humanity. This is now. This is a living lesson for us as a people.”
Those commenters, in an apparent attempt to prove a political point, ended up once again trying to do the same thing I saw in that Polish ad mentioned in my prior blog. To stress nothing to see here, big deal out of nothing, move along.
I agree that the lessons from other genocides are important. But that means the lessons from the Holocaust are too. Plenty to see here. I’m not budging on the idea that lessons can and should be learned from this historical event.
BUT THERE WAS MORE TO IT THAN THAT
Let me dive into some of the other reasons why I am so chafed by the comments I saw.
LOTS OF NONSENSE
One of those reasons was the nonsensical nature of the positions put forward. Not just the contradictory statements. Not just the failure to connect dots prior to saying liberals use Holocaust history to aid or create totalitarianism.
It was also that their observations never matched up to my personal experiences with liberals who discuss the Holocaust.
One asserted that Western liberals used their portrayal of the Holocaust to create a narrative where they can feel better about themselves.
Let’s be clear here. By Western, the commenter meant white. However, I have found that white liberals tend to be the ones saying they don’t have a right to feel good about themselves when it comes to the past, because the West has been so self-centered in its history and is responsible for so many bad parts of other groups’ history.
That person then tried to link the feel-good-about-yourself narrative to Germans feeling guilty as a culture for the Holocaust and how unfair that was, given the people feeling the guilt had nothing to do with German actions in World War II.
Which is it? Is the narrative to make you feel better about yourself or to make you feel guilty? I know that some Germans do feel guilt. I know it was more prevalent in, for example, the 1960s than it is today. And that among the Germans who feel guilty today are Western liberals. So, I can’t follow what the person is saying. Both his own statements and my observations contradict his assertions.
Here is another example, this time from the contradictions in the positions stated by that same person. He noted growing Western recognition that the Holocaust was not the only genocide. He complained of universalizing its history and divorcing it from context. He warned of overemphasizing it. He complained that Western liberal treatment of history was divorced from critical thought and forced ideology on our children in a totalitarian fashion. He said that teaching the Holocaust or other genocidal events from history served as using exemplars, thus creating a high risk of false narratives. Plus there are too many of them. With me so far?
He also asserted it would be more useful to teach genocide in a generalized way as part of the human condition. Which is completely contradictory to his position against universalizing. He did propose that particular cases could be looked at as exemplars. Wasn’t that an ill of liberal teachings? Using exemplars? Picking and choosing and rewriting history? Overemphasizing a genocide over others? Plus, does not the selection of exemplars create a danger of creating false or biased narratives? Isn’t that contrary to critical thought? Isn’t that treading dangerously close to forcing an ideology on children?
See what I mean by it made no sense?
AN ARGUMENT THAT REMEMBRANCE IS NOT REMEMBRANCE …WHAT?
The person also describe remembrance in a way completely foreign to me. If someone asks me to remember something, they are asking me to think on it. If I don’t remember it, they are expecting me to investigate. To make sure I understand it. True in everyday conversation. True when taking about taking a moment of silence or having a remembrance day.
But the commenter asserted that’s not what a remembrance day is about. That instead of understanding something or respecting the dead, it served to appropriate the dead to make political and moral points, while discouraging understanding and investigation.
Again, most people I know don’t do this. Some politicians do. That whole, “See how pious I am” thing. But most are like Mr. Allen. Touched by a human experience, not divorced from it.
VISITING HISTORICAL SITES IS NOT TOTALITARIAN INDOCTRINATION
But the person went even further still in rubbing me the wrong way. He described the idea of having students go on field trips, to what he called cleaned up sites, like the death camp of Auschwitz, as not educational, but rather totalitarian training that serves to brainwash our children into conforming to liberal ideologies.
First off, almost all historical sites are cleaned up. You can’t smell the shit in the outhouse, or the food scraps from the kitchen rotting in the noon day sun, or the blood from the whipping post. What is someone supposed to have done? Left the ashes in the ovens of Auschwitz? Perhaps leave the corpses to rot in the open, so that today only bleached bones remain? What about the site is too clean?
Second, when I visit a historical site, whether it is a structure or a geographical locale, it makes real for me what had previously only been an abstract. Cultural experiences and differences can become more understandable.
ANOTHER SPORTS ANECDOTE THAT’S NOT ABOUT SPORTS
I remember seeing footage of the South African Springbok rugby team, at the time largely white, in a nation suddenly without apartheid. Expected to play at the world stage, representing a South Africa with a new face to the world, most of these men had grown up with and played in the old way of racial separation and white supremacy. Tough men, paid and praised for handling the world physically, they did not know what their place was or how they should proceed in this new order of things.
With the weight of their nation on their shoulders, and the eyes of the world beginning to bear down on them, these men made a pilgrimage to see the prison where their new president, Nelson Mandela, had spent so many years of his life. I watched these uncertain men’s faces transform as, what for them had always been abstract, the reality of apartheid and the struggle to end it, become real and tangible. Some wept. All seem changed.
Was that jail cell cleaned up? Absolutely. Did that transformation brainwash those men? No, it opened them to new possibilities. Did some feel guilt?* Probably. Did it make them feel better or morally superior? Pretty sure that’s a big fat, “No.” Did it shift them to being more totalitarian? No, it helped them step out of totalitarianism’s shadow.
Now did that little trip serve as propaganda or score some political points? I am sure it did. But that doesn’t change the impact it had on those men.
(*Being moved to tears or otherwise touched by an event, a place, or a person is, by the way, not guilt. Taking you to places where you may be so moved is not an attempt to make you feel guilty. I think that distinction may have eluded the commenters.)
HISTORICAL SITES CAN TRANSFORM OUR UNDERSTANDING OF EVENTS
I admit freely the comments about visiting historical sites really bug me. I stood in a German World War II submarine and marveled at how the men, Germans mind you, could live in such a metal can and not go mad. And that’s without the sound, steam and heat from the engines.
I stood in cliff dwellings of the Native Americans from the Southwest and got a feel for their engineering cleverness and their ingenuity in tackling the problems of their day.
I appreciate that greater understanding.
Trust me. You can look at pictures. You can even see it on IMAX. But until you physically go there, stand at the rim, and see it for yourself, you will not truly get the enormity of the Grand Canyon.
I won’t have my experiences, or those of the Springboks, or Ray Allen belittled as brainwashing, antiseptic, or totalitarian training. Nor the experiences of Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige having a moment where past and present collided, allowing them to say “Seems like I’ve been here before.”
Some of our most powerful or transformative moments with history come when we stand in the places where it took place and open ourselves to the experience.
THE “WHY BOTHER TO REMEMBER” ARGUMENT REVEALS ANOTHER CLEVER DENIAL WITHOUT DENYING THE HOLOCAUST
That commenter wasn’t done though. He added that the whole Holocaust Remembrance Day was passé. Except he used stronger language, saying it amounted to forcing thought and creating Nazis because people resent being force fed ideology. If we wish to forget instead of remember, why not?
I will grant him he has a point, in that if people feel forced to think or act a certain way, they may rebel and do the opposite. I actually suspect that some who feel deeply divided from their fellow Americans in our present day believe they had to take their position because others were forcing their ideals on them. I get told that online by people who resent LGBTQ rights, for example. Or who spout bigoted or racist rhetoric. Apparently because liberals are trying to force them to give a shit about other people.
Although if you recall, liberals were also supposed to be the one’s creating a feel-better-about-your-morals narrative out of the Holocaust according to the same commenter. So again, I am getting a mixed message about what horrible thing Western liberals are supposed to be doing again. Make us feel better when we shouldn’t? Or forcing us to rebel because they are making us feel guilty for not caring about others enough?
Nevertheless, a few things here.
One, almost no one forces you to remember, or to think in certain ways. Most of us are free to choose not to, thank you very much. Suggestion and encouragement does not equate to forcing.
Second, I don’t regret for one minute suggesting you give a shit about other people or suggesting that’s a better way to be. If that makes me a horrible liberal forcing an ideology on you, I can live with that.
Third, I still am going to encourage you to remember our human history. That includes the Holocaust.
You know what else?
If someone of Jewish ancestry wants to urge the West to remember and understand the Holocaust, while he struggles in the present with anti-Semitism, doesn’t he have a point?
If someone of African slave ancestry wants to urge the West to remember and understand its history of enslaving her ancestors, while she struggles in the present with racism, doesn’t she have a point?
The sentiments that gave rise to those events are still with us. And they probably will never entirely go away. But we should darn well try to be aware of where they have led before and can lead again.
EVEN TODAY SOME DON’T HAVE THE LUXURY OF NOT REMEMBERING
That commenter seemed to have the luxury of not remembering the Holocaust. Good for him, I guess. He also made a big deal out of Western liberals ignoring the details, the human story of the dead. In his stance against remembrance he ignored those human stories too, essentially asserting that it really wasn’t a big deal to anyone any more.
He’s wrong. I have too many friends who don’t have that same luxury. As one friend, who is younger than me by the way, once put it, “Most of my relatives went up the chimney in Treblinka.”
There are whole swaths of my friends’ families that never got to sit with them at Seder, or chat with them on the phone, or send them birthday cards. Because they died, and their children and grand-children were never born.
I bet several of you can say the same, either personally or on behalf of your friends.
BY REMEMBERING THE HOLOCAUST, WE CAN LEARN ABOUT OURSELVES
I have a friend who commented after Trump’s election that it made him look at his co-workers, friends, and neighbors differently. It reminded him that anti-Semitism has always been there. Which of them saw him that way. Which of them looked at him and thought to themselves how he dirtied his nice, gentile wife with his “Jewishness.”
Do you remember when the President called the host of a news show sleepy-eyed. Did you know that the host was of Jewish ancestry? Did you know the phrase was an anti-Semitic dog whistle? If you want to wade through the offal of White Supremacist message boards, you can confirm it, although I can’t recommend the experience. And the President of the nation of “All men are created equal” said that before the cameras.
I don’t want that world.
I want us to look at the past, go to those historic sites, and have our eyes opened. That’s true for the history of the Holocaust, and all the atrocities committed by one group against another.
“I didn’t go to Poland as a black person, a white person, a Christian person or a Jewish person — I went as a human being. … We have to do a better job breaking through ignorance and the close-mindedness and the divisions that are plaguing our society.”
Reject the idea of denying the Holocaust through denial of its significance. Why did I keep emphasizing neo-Nazis, Mein Kampf, and other connections to the Third Reich in my tales of anti-Semitism above? Because it shows just how much the Holocaust matters, directly to our present day.
But don’t just label it as a Jewish thing or a European thing. I don’t care if I am universalizing. Open your mind and gain insight from this very human experience.
Ordinary people did some amazingly horrible things to other people. Ordinary people did some amazingly heroic things to help other people.
Learn from that about who we are, how we got here, and who you want to be.