I am a WW2 baby. I was born in July 1939, just six weeks before Germany invaded Poland, marking the official beginning of the conflict that was the background music to the first six years of my life. In fact, that music has accompanied me for all of my 83 years.
For a Jewish child, WW2 and the Holocaust were synonymous. I was too young to understand the pall it cast over our family life but now the picture is a bit clearer, although there are so many gaps in the story, and no one left to help fill them in. My mother’s family followed two divergent paths out of Poland. She and most of her siblings left for the US in the years following the first World War. Her parents, a sister and some cousins remained in Poland until the 11th hour just before the start of WWII before leaving for Palestine.
But there was one exception. My mother’s sister Rachel, along with her husband and two children, chose to remain in place, at least that was the story I grew up with. One cousin in Israel told me he had tried to convince them to join him, but they were adamant about staying. I don’t know whether any other effort was made by either the American or the Israeli families to extricate them once the intentions of the Nazis were unmistakable. That point will be important as my story proceeds.
Although we haven’t found the official records of their extermination, there was firsthand corroboration of their presence in Auschwitz. At some point in the post-war years, we received a visitor in our Brooklyn apartment from a woman who knew Rachel in the camps. I was not privy to the details of her visit, but my mother seemed to experience a kind of pained relief in finally knowing what happened to Rachel and her family and where. I’m not sure how we got it, but I have a heartbreaking photo of her with her husband and children that I’ve displayed in presentations about the Holocaust to underscore the point that the Holocaust is not an abstraction to me but a tragedy that landed close to home.
I’ve read many books about the period and seen many Holocaust-related movies, but at the same time I have a problem with my fellow Jews who have made the Holocaust the center of their Jewish identity. Unlike a large and increasing number of Jews, I have been exposed through my Jewish education and affiliation to the joys of our heritage – the rich history, literature, music and rituals. The relentless focus on death and destruction sucks the joy out of participation in a culture that is far more than that. I’m reminded of a young African American student in the classroom of a novice teacher I was mentoring who refused to read a book assigned by his teacher that was heavy with content about slavery and the Klan. He made a strong case for not being limited in his identity by all that negative content.
Still, the Holocaust music continues to play in the background for me and should never be silenced. The unspeakably dark story needs to be revisited from time to time, even though it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s anything more to be said or revealed than what has already come to light.
So, after some initial resistance, my wife and I have been watching Ken Burns’s latest work, The U.S. and the Holocaust. It’s a heavy lift at six hours of three two-hour segments. Even though I’m sometimes inclined to think I’ve seen it all, Burns and his extraordinary team have a way of unearthing archival material, especially photos and videos, that reawaken the sense of horror and outrage even for someone like me who occasionally suffers from Holocaust fatigue and the guilt that attaches to it. For several summers, our daughter Elana led youth group tours to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland. She confronted in herself and her young charges the diminishing ability to feel anything in these centers of destruction and the attendant guilt for the loss of feeling.
There are two things that rescue Burns’s documentary from the ever-growing collection of Holocaust material. First, it focuses the spotlight not on the familiar Nazi evils, but right here at home, on the failure of the US to act to save more Jews who were trapped in countries where their ultimate fate was inevitable. We are faced with the deep-seated antisemitism of the American people and their representatives in Congress who wanted the country’s doors kept tightly shut against a suspect minority. The US State Department itself, which could have overseen more generous policies, was in the hands of career politicians who were unabashed antisemites. Even President Roosevelt himself, a hero in my childhood household, didn’t use the considerable power of his office to save more of the Jews who were desperately knocking at our door. I was introduced to this sorry picture years ago by David Wyman’s hugely significant book The Abandonment of the Jews, but Burns’s work carries the message to a much wider audience.
Second, without being too heavy-handed, Burns draws the clear parallel to our policies toward the waves of immigrants seeking our help today. The nativist forces in the Republican party see Jews as a threat to our culture, just as Charles Lindbergh, the great American hero, saw them. Allowing too many in, he said, would create chaos. We continue to fall far short of Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty exhorting us to open our doors to the “wretched refuse” of the world’s teeming shores. What ailed us during the Holocaust turns out to be chronic.
Alongside our humanitarian impulses lies an ugly strain of bigotry and narrowmindedness that we have to acknowledge as part of who we are as much as our virtues. Those Charlottesville protestors who return at the end of Burns’s documentary are still among us, chanting as they march, “Jews will not replace us.”