Remembering the Holocaust makes it less likely to happen again

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By Warren Parkin

This past week Jews in Florida, across the United States, throughout Israel, and all around the world paused to remember the Six Million and the persecuted survivors. They mourned the loss of unique ways of life, progeny, and creativity. They vowed that the horrors of institutionalized exploitation of prejudice welded to planned, intentional, and organized genocide will never happen again. They honored Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Many people of other faiths also took time to participate in public forums and in private moments to honor those who perished and those who survived the past. They too paused to reflect on the legacy of genocidal prejudice and the vacuum of loss brought about by the employment of industrial mechanization to destroy human beings instead of to produce beneficial products for humans and humane use.

A modern propaganda machine

It is mind boggling that the Industrial Revolution tethered to a modern propaganda machine could go about the efficient destruction of an entire people while simultaneously convincing Germans, Europeans and Americans to stand by and let atrocity happen.

The Holocaust diminished the humanity of an entire species known in scientific terms as homo sapiens, or man who thinks. Happily for our sense of justice, empathy, and familial love - those very qualities that define us as human beings - the Final Solution was a colossal failure. Like the Phoenix, Judaism literally sprang from the ashes more resilient than before.

Instead of erasing a diverse and creative people, the Holocaust led to a renewed sense of the value of life, the blossoming of American Jewry, the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state, the renewal of unique cultures, and the resurrection of a language nearing oral extinction. Prior to the Holocaust, few people spoke Hebrew. It was a sacred language reserved for readings of the Torah. Jews spoke the language or languages of the country they lived in and Yiddish, a preserved middle German that bound them together after the diasporas of the Christian Crusades in the Middle Ages. Now Hebrew is spoken by millions. Ironically, the Final Solution resulted in the Ultimate Rebuttal, a defiance of prejudice that heightened ethnic pride and led to a fertile creative production of culture.

Early introductions

My earliest experience with Jewish culture was learning stories of the Bible through the lens of a small splinter group of Christianity. Consequently, I was both naïve and uninformed. I remember well, however, the first time I learned about the Holocaust. I was 9 years old in third-grade when some classmates wrote swastikas on their desks and papers. I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about. My teacher went upstairs and asked Mrs. Bolton, a fifth-grade teacher, to talk to us. After listening to her speak about her family history and the sickening destruction that happened to her grandparents and relatives at the hands of Nazi’s, I was shocked. I could only take comfort in the fact that I hadn’t been one of those who had written the sadistic, hateful symbol. Even though I had grown up on stories of persecution and mob violence against my ancestors for their religious beliefs, I couldn’t begin to wrap my mind around the concept that such a powerful desolating evil existed in the hearts of humans that could lead to the murder of millions.

Books serve as a foundation

Since that time I have read many books about the Holocaust. This week I thought about which books would best serve as an introduction for people who would like to know more. In an effort to humanize history, to make it more real, I have chosen books that document the nearly successful destruction of European Jewry and one book that portrays Jewish life prior to Nazi atrocities.

These books serve as an easily accessible foundation for learning about one of the most horrific events in modern Western Culture. I have purposely chosen books that emphasize the visual image because photographs are more readily accessible than the written word.

If you would like to become more familiar with the Holocaust and would like to understand why so many feel so strongly that it should never be forgotten lest it happen again, I recommend the following:

After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust (2002) by acclaimed novelist and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, published by Schocken Books, combines the author’s unique perspective with photographs from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for a profoundly moving introduction to Holocaust history.

In addition to Wiesel’s historical narrative and analysis of the events that took place from 1933-1945, this book features brief, first-hand accounts by eye-witness survivors. Wiesel recognizes that Hitler did not just kill Jews but that Nazism was most effective in impacting Jewish culture. “[I]f not all the victims were Jews, only the Jews were all victims,” he writes. Perhaps, Wiesel refers to the fact that the Jewish people as a whole were targeted for complete elimination in the Holocaust and that the Final Solution continues to impact those who survived to this very day.

The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures (2003) published by Publications International is a hefty volume that is a dense archive of Sho’ah (slaughter) history. This nearly 800 page encyclopedic tome is filled with images and explanation that invites perusal and educates the reader in snippets. If you have a few minutes here and there this is a book that lends itself to brief readings. Many of the images are pointedly horrific and the prose is sparse and informative. It’s a good reference for educators and a rich collection for interested readers. Due to the graphic nature of the photographs parental discretion is advised.

We Remember the Holocaust by David A. Adler (1989) published by Scholastic Inc. is an excellent work for older children and young adults who want to know more about the Holocaust. We Remember is filled with a compendium of first-hand accounts of people who were children during the Nazi reign of terror.

Adler began to interview survivors after his seven-year-old child asked him, “What happened in the Holocaust?” Every page has at least one picture that portrays life during the Nazi reign. Past and present portraits of the people who speak in the book make what is said more real. The images portraying life as a Jew in Nazi occupied lands are not too graphic for most children. Parents, however, should read this book in tandem with their kids who will want to talk about the injustices that they read about and see.

Two out of print works that I think are well worth the time to track down on the web are Written in Memory: Portraits of the Holocaust (1997) by Jeffery A. Wolin published by Chronicle Books, and To Give Them Light: The Legacy of Roman Vishniac (1993) published by Simon and Schuster.

Written in Memory is a photographic book that features portraits of Holocaust survivors against a backdrop of their own words about surviving. These present day portraits make for a striking contrast with photographs taken of the individuals during the war years when they were children, teenagers, and young adults.

To Give Them Light preserves a host of photographs of European Jewry before the Holocaust. In contrast to the many works that focus on the aftermath, this book photographically documents the daily life of Jews before the slaughter. It must be seen to be appreciated. Vishniac’s images give a haunting reminder that the corpses in the shocking photos once lived full, ordinary lives of hard work, familial relations and celebration. The photographs serves as a graphic juxtaposition to the brutal images of events from the Holocaust, capturing human faces and memories of the past before the tragedy.

All of these books are available for $20 or less, the first three in bookstores and the last two on the Web.

Teachers who want to educate, parents who want to teach their children, and individuals who want to learn about the Holocaust will find these works an invaluable place to start. Remember the Holocaust, and if you don’t remember, read about it and learn about it, then pass on the knowledge so that it never happens again.