More about the Holocaust

Created on Wednesday, July 8, 2009.
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It’s a great shame, I think, that young people don’t read as much as they used to. Very few have parents who read often, and even fewer have parents who read for leisure, and so they grow up thinking that reading is difficult, or work-related or somehow not as attractive as doing other things like vegging out in front of the television or getting smashed or whatevs, and so they take the examples of their parents and don’t read.

This is something that I want to avoid with my own children, and so I have bookshelves of classic literature, reference books and other influential texts not only because I enjoy reading them, but because if you show your kid that you enjoy reading, they’ll become interested and want to be like you. My grandfather, you see, was a smart dude and had many shelves of books about all kinds of things — crime, medicine, classic fiction, economics, world issues, disasters, history — and so I ended up being this three or four year old kid who’d sit around reading about forensic science and geography, and though I may have only understood only half of what I was actually reading, it was still a really cool and grown-up thing to be doing, and so I persisted.

Not reading creates a huge gap in knowledge that the schooling system simply can’t fill, and nowhere is this gap wider and more undesirable than in the lack of working knowledge about the early 20th century: the war years, 1914-1945. It is pretty safe to say that nothing has changed the way the world works more than the two World Wars; geographical boundaries and international attitudes, leaps of industry, medical research and many everyday inventions would not have come about without the extreme impetus of war.

What is more surprising yet is how little the average Joe knows about the Holocaust, and how difficult it is for people to digest its scale and magnitude.

What’s more ridiculous is that some people are saying it never happened, and this is so infuriating that — but I digress.

Anyway, to illustrate the Holocaust it’s often more desirable to go small, into the personal stories, because Stalin was right about scale; “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” There are three great texts for this. I think they should be viewed in the order presented:

Auschwitz by Laurence Rees is about the death camp where 1.1 million people died, about its beginnings, how it was run, how it was improved and how it ended. It does not provide much background of the how and why of anti-semitism, focusing solely on the events directly related to the camp’s formation and running.

Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel (basically a long comic book) relating the experiences of his father as a Jewish survivor of the war, including Auschwitz. It’s such a gorgeous book I read it straight through in two hours. It’s presented as an allegory where characters are animals; Jews are mice, Germans are cats and so forth. It makes you focus on how much the war divided people along lines of race (at many points the Jewish characters wear pig snout masks to pass off as Polish citizens, who are shown as pigs), and emphasises the humanity of the characters without becoming oversentimental. There are sample pages at the publisher’s website.

Paperclips by Joe Fab is a documentary film about a middle school in Tennessee that decided to teach its kids about the Holocaust in order to warn them of what intolerance and prejudice could lead to. To understand the scale of the deaths, the kids suggested that they collect six million paperclips (for each Jew) so that they knew what six million looked like. The collection snowballed over time into a world-famous project that took donations for more than 24 million paperclips, with a letter included with most of them documenting the stories behind each paperclip. Now if you go to Whitwell, TN there is a Holocaust memorial made from an authentic German cattle car used for prisoner transport, which houses 11 million paperclips for all of the Jews, gays, gypsies, Roma and many others who were exterminated by the Nazis.

In Maus Art Spiegelman documents a reporter asking him, “Many younger Germans have had it up to here with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were born. Why should they feel guilty?” And his mouse-character answers, “I dunno… Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!” I think so, too.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2018.