I’m about to make a controversial statement. It’s a personal matter, but I think it still might ruffle a few feathers. Because this statement I’m about to make, it’s not something Jews are supposed to say, especially not this week. It’s uncouth, and I just want to warn you in advance.
So here it is: I am tired of talking about the Holocaust.
I am also tired of reading about the Holocaust, watching movies about the Holocaust, listening to music inspired by the Holocaust, and nodding slowly with an expression of resigned sadness on my face whenever anyone else so much as mentions the Holocaust.
Does this make me a monster? A self-hating Jew at worst, an insensitive child at best? For a while I thought so, and felt guilty.
But it’s not that I consider the Holocaust unimportant. Far from it. The Holocaust is without a doubt the single-most defining event in modern Jewish history. Even more so, I would argue, than the creation of the State of Israel. It was a tremendous atrocity, and something that deserves our attention and consideration.
I just don’t want to talk about it anymore.
I know I’m not the only person out there suffering from exterminated-Jew overload. From elementary school on, Jewish youngsters bear witness to the Shoah. First in religious school, and then in public school, well-meaning teachers offer up horrifying pictures, unfathomable numbers, and graphic accounts of concentration camp conditions for the sake of education. And it’s important to know what happened. But by the time I was in the 4th grade I knew how a gas chamber worked and what Jews look like when you shave their heads, dress them in prison stripes, and starve them. I knew that we were victims.
Dee Simon, co-director of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, told me she believes this is no longer the case — that children are now being taught a more balanced view of the Holocaust in which it is examined in context with other genocides — as opposed to an isolated tragedy that could only befall Jews — and with a focus on Jewish partisans and resistance groups. This new curriculum shows the range of ways Jews responded to the Holocaust, she explained.
“The way it’s being taught today is through a totally different lens,” Simon said. “We all grew up thinking the Jews were sheep, right? But that’s not true. We want Jewish kids to feel empowered, not mired in victimhood.”
I hope she’s right and that the coming generations of young Jews will have a different take on the Holocaust.
But for now, it seems that burden of victimhood follows us everywhere we go. The Holocaust is such a crucial part of modern collective Jewish identity it’s hard to even imagine who we would be without it. What if being Jewish in America in 2010 had nothing to do with the millions of Jews who perished in Europe in the previous century? What if we weren’t so wrapped up in the fear of our people’s death and destruction? I can’t even imagine what that Judaism might look like. Although I guess the question is irrelevant — we can’t go back in time, and we can’t pretend like the Holocaust didn’t happen. Nor should we.
But maybe not all of us need to walk around under the weight of genocide all the time?
For those who lived through the events of World War II, or even the first generation after, it is easy to understand why the memories of the Holocaust are so consuming. But for those of us born much later, it’s difficult to maintain the energy for mourning.
Simon suggests that teaching and studying the Holocaust can actually be a process about inspiring hope, not sadness.
“It’s a way to talk about human dignity and honoring life,” she said.
Some stories of Holocaust survival really are incredible. But I’ve never been able to find the message of hope in any story that ended with millions of people dead. And by the same token, I can’t see myself in those stories. They are half a world and 70 years away. It’s too far. And I’ve heard it before.
So, I’m sorry. I don’t want to talk about murdered Jews this week. I’d rather spend my time with the living ones, celebrating the parts of our culture that are vibrant, exciting, and alive. It just seems like a better kind of survival.