I spent most of my middle school years not actually in middle school, with some sort of tacit agreement with the truant officer making this mutually amenable to everyone. I got to avoid being horrifically bullied while doing my own thing, the school didn’t need to do anything about bullying, and everyone won. Thus, the rare times I bothered to show up for school are memorable for me, and one day in particular stands out, and likely always will: The day a Jewish Holocaust survivor came to visit my seventh grade class.
I can’t honestly remember the details of the story he told us, though it’s one that played out thousands of times in thousands of different ways for European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, as too did it for disabled people, LGBQT people, political prisoners, and Roma. There was something about a painting, I remember, I think maybe his father was a painter and that it was smuggled out of the camp — I remember seeing a painting.
But what I remember most is this: In a room packed with seventh graders, the whole year so he wouldn’t have to go through this multiple times, a certain restlessness, an unease, a fidgeting, took hold around halfway through. Young minds wandered and what started out as shifting in their seats became sort of a low background rumble. Our English teacher was standing by the chalkboard, and she stepped forward to attempt to bring things to order, but he furrowed his ferocious salt-and-pepper eyebrows at her and he spun around so quickly that it was easy to forget he was in his 70s, and he said in a dangerously low, almost conversational tone: ‘Maybe you think this is funny for you?’ And he kept talking, in a low, easy sort of way, slowly drawing the room into an uneasy calm, and then he exploded, whipping a piece of chalk from the tray and gouging it into the chalkboard, ‘AUSCHWITZ,’ so hard the chalk broke, and I remember the sounds of the pieces dropping to the hard linoleum, and a long, awkward pause.
I knew about the Holocaust and what it was, though I cannot tell you when, precisely, I learned — but I always knew that something very bad and terrible had happened in the Second World War, that millions of people died, that the strange photographs of skeletal people with sad eyes in our photographs were from the liberation of Dachau. I’d read The Diary of Anne Frank and I also read This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and From Athens to Auschwitz. I knew that it had a lot to do with Jewish people, and he wasn’t even the first Holocaust survivor I’d met — but I’d learned not to ask people of a certain age about the numbers on their arms. I knew that some of the students in that room were Jewish, that some of them had Holocaust survivors in their families.
But something about that moment, being confronted with decades of rage and sorrow, made a grave impression on me and I’ve carried it with me ever since. As time goes on, my generation seems likely to be the last that will grow up with Holocaust survivors among us, with living history that we can see, and feel, and interact with — the man who spoke in our class that day is still alive, and I see him at the grocery store sometimes, shorter even than I am, a legacy of malnutrition from the camps, still fiery. I don’t know if he still speaks at schools. I hope he does. I understand if he doesn’t.
I say all this by way of saying that I have a lot of complicated feelings about the Holocaust, and this is not the place to talk about them, but that a key thread among those feelings is this: The Holocaust happened, millions of people died, and millions of people were not just killed, but brutalised. The people who worked at the camps were not just complicit, but active participants.
Which is why I am deeply disturbed by a publishing trend I’m starting to see, and I don’t know if I’m seeing it because the internet and electronic media make it easier to access, or if it really is on the rise. That trend is this: The ‘happy Holocaust’ book, in which the realities of the Holocaust aren’t just neatly avoided but sometimes actively erased. It’s book where Nazis are love interests, where Jewish slave labour is fun for the whole family. And I know that there’s always been a pernicious thread of this, and it’s bound up in a lot of things, and it makes me burn with fury.
I get why authors think this is okay: Holocaust deniers are everywhere. What I do not get is why publishers think this is acceptable. I’m a pretty big fan of free speech, but I am also a fan of responsible speech. I would never say that the government should ban such books (as is the case in Germany and France, among other nations with Holocaust-related hate crimes laws), but I do think that individual publishers can make the calculated decision to refuse to give them a platform. This isn’t edgy. We don’t need to humanise Nazis. It’s okay to say ‘you know what, the Holocaust was fucked up, and the people who perpetrated it were fucked up, and we are going to be living with that fucked upedness for the rest of eternity, with the fact that there is an entire missing generation of Nazi ‘undesirables.” We can say that. We can stop there. We don’t need touching Nazi romances or books about nice Hitler youth growing up on farms and isn’t this fun? We don’t. We just don’t.
We don’t need to make every story about the Holocaust one of unrelenting horror and misery — there are a lot of different aspects of this story to tell, including the stories of badasses within and outside the camps who took extraordinary risks and accomplished extraordinary things. Those are true stories. Things that happened. Real people. We don’t need to make up stories to sanitise the Holocaust and paint a more palatable picture of history than the one that’s readily available, and when we provide a platform for that kind of storytelling, we’re perpetuating a horrific legacy.
Image: Auschwitz, Dan Maudsley for Anne Frank House UK, Flickr