Thursday, March 06, 2008

Teaching the Holocaust

It is already an old question whether the Holocaust is an appropriate subject for literature or any artistic expression, whether words or painting or music can convey an evil that was very real and yet transcended reality and even imagination. There is always the possibility that attempts to depict events that obliterated the boundaries of human understanding inevitably trivialize these events.

There has been trivia. There are also the words of Eli Wiesel, Primo Levi and other writers. For many religious Jews, lamentations composed by the Bobover Rebbe and Rav Shimon Schwab have been added to the Tisha b’Av recitations that describe the massacre of Jews from the destruction of the Temples through the Crusades. We are obligated to remember and this requires language and text.

If only because it is history, the Holocaust must be taught, especially to Jews, but not only to them. This, too, requires writings, as well as visual presentations, and there are questions and complications, including the strong temptation among Jews and persons who aren’t Jewish to invest that which was unique and beyond horrific with a universalistic message about tolerance. Tolerance is a necessary value and should be taught, but teaching the Holocaust is not about tolerance and to immerse the destruction of European Jewry in such a message is, I believe, an inadvertent form of Holocaust denial.

What to teach and show children and at what age are questions that have no easy answers. There is room for disagreement, as the discussion of this topic last week in this newspaper showed. Yad Vashem does not admit children younger than twelve and Jewish schools are careful about what younger children are exposed to. The New York Times (February 25) has now chipped in via a narcissistic column by Susan Dominus who attended a Conservative after-school program in Westchester. “It wasn’t unusual, at the time,” she writes, “for kids in Jewish day schools and after-school programs” to be “shown films of mass murder, piles of bodies in camps, so much graphic detail that our nascent faculties of analysis froze.”

I will not challenge what she describes as her age 11 experience. Her claim about what was shown in day schools and, for that matter, generally to young children, is false. They were not exposed to graphic details. What they may have seen in movies and on television is another matter.

Dominus describes without the slightest trace of sensibility the “trembling rage of my Hebrew school teacher when two fellow students giggled about some private girlish intrigue…as images from the camps flickered across the screen.” I guess that the nascent “faculties of analysis” did not freeze sufficiently to prevent childish giggling. The teacher, she tells us, “railed.” It matters not whether he/she was a survivor or had close relatives who were slaughtered. I wonder whether Dominus would be as unkind if the student giggling had occurred when she was at public school, perhaps during a history class. Would she be so unkind if the teacher became angry?

She next turns her attention to the “tiny subset” of Holocaust literature that she refers to as “Holocaust education trauma,” invoking as her experts Gary Shteyngart and Shalom Auslander, two talented writers with an overdeveloped yen for that which is vulgar. Both attended Jewish day school but are now far removed from our religious life, a circumstance that hardly deters them from writing about this life, often in a nasty fashion, a guarantor of fame and fortune in a world that rewards that which is debased. Apart from my reservations whether there is a serious issue of Holocaust education trauma, how a journalist can turn to Shteyngart and Auslander for guidance on the Holocaust is beyond my comprehension.

Shteyngart’s contribution is “a parody” that includes a section called “Holocaust For Kids” in which a fictional author advises, “Studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with images of skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow.” Putting aside whether this could have happened at a Jewish school – is the reference to Schindler’s List? – parodying the actual murder of Jews is beyond obscenity. Would a journalist be permitted to cite as an authority on how to teach about slavery a parody of the actual lynching of a Black man? We Jews are fair game, often at the hands of other Jews who are morally depraved.

Auslander’s contribution to the debasement of Holocaust literature is called ”Holocaust Tips for Kids.” Dominus conveys his claim that “the first naked Jewish girl he ever saw, at age 11 while attending a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y.” was “footage of a corpse tumbling off a pile of bulldozed bodies”. As with his other warped recollections converted into fiction, he is not a trustworthy writer of remembrances of things past.

Holocaust education poses challenges – what age, what material, what setting – and we should suspect the view that invoking the Holocaust can contribute meaningfully to Jewish identity and continuity. We have two generations of the American Jewish experience as powerful evidence that walking out of the door of Jewish life is not impeded by Holocaust memorials, movies, etc.

The Holocaust must be taught, if only because it happened. We Jews are obligated to go beyond teaching, for we must never forget, even though there are those who prefer that we do. Our memories and our words must be charged with emotion, with tears and anger, and we must never apologize for this even if a writer at the New York Times thinks it wrong.

Need it be added that for the Times there is the heightened obligation to be careful about what it publishes regarding the Holocaust? Many of us cannot forget what this newspaper that claims to publish all that is fit to print did not publish when Jews were being slaughtered by the thousands, day after day, year after year.