Why I Study the Holocaust or Living with a "Useless" Major

It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us...on the inside, looking out."
-Everything is Illuminated


"History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them."
-Jodi Picoult



When I tell people what I do, I usually try and make it as covert as possible to avoid potentially awkward encounters. Depending on the person, I might divulge my actual area of interest, but sometimes I simply say that I'm a student of history.  If people are interested in furthering a conversation with me, or simply interested in history, they will invariably ask me what time period I'm concentrating on. And then I tell them that I'm a student of Holocaust Studies, followed by one of three reactions, depending on the person. They are as follows:

1) The Joke.  This reaction is usually from a person who feels slightly uncomfortable by the simple mention of such a horrible period in human history. Of course, thinking about the Holocaust makes most people feel uncomfortable and rightly so. However, the joke I hear most often is, "Well, I guess you'll have everything you'll need to stage your own mass genocide." Usually I laugh it off, as I'm guilty of making light of the situation on occasion. You have to, or it will become an all-consuming vortex of sadness. But, suffice to say, this is not my favorite response.


2) The Defensive Person. A defensive person is typically an older European who was alive during the war, although in some countries, the defensive person can be a bit younger. This person will usually list all of the reasons why their country can't be held accountable for their part in the Holocaust. Sometimes, they tell me that the majority of people didn't even know about the camps. I often feel very uncomfortable with this type of response and do not know how to handle it. I chalk it up to personal guilt over a situation the person had no control over (most of these people were very young during the Holocaust and in some cases, I have found, were trying to justify their family's involvement in the Holocaust to themselves). Most of the time, I try to change the subject. I cannot change their attitudes or their deep seeded guilty feelings in a light conversation. Although this reaction saddens me, I am not a psychologist and am not qualified to help people face these intense feelings, especially over a casual lunch or at a dinner party. So, we move on and I'm left feeling a little bit sadder inside. I don't believe in collective guilt, but reactions like this show that everyone knows it was wrong. But sometimes, it is very difficult to accept that someone you know or love had a hand in something so incomprehensible. And it is even harder to look yourself in the mirror and face your own prejudices. Some of my older Southern family members were not fans of Martin Luther King, junior and felt that Civil Rights was a passing fad. While that isn't exactly the same thing as participating in a genocide, it's still not something fun to discover about people who have such a large place in your heart.

3)  The "That's So Interesting" Person. This is probably my most common response and I typically don't mind it. It makes me feel a little bit better for having more than a passive interest in something so morbid. Sometimes people feel safe enough with me to tell me their family's stories, and I appreciate being able to lend an ear. Sometimes, people just need to be heard.

But the biggest question I get is, "Why?" My mother used to ask me why in the world I would want to watch things on television, read books and go see movies that were so depressing. The only acceptable answer I could manage was that someone has to. Someone has to receive the stories, and for whatever reason, I feel as though I've been guided to be a part of that particular legacy.

As a child, my fascination with the Holocaust began when my mother introduced me to the subject by allowing me to watch a documentary on it when I was eight years old. The documentary touched me so deeply that I began to read every middle grade book about it I could get my hands on. I read Anne Frank's Diary around the age of nine. My mother allowed me to see Schindler's List in the movie theater, even though I was the youngest attendee by far.

History has always been an interest of mine, even before I knew about the Holocaust. I liked to read about different times and places, especially Europe. My favorite books were the American Girl series, in which I could read about what it was like to grow up in eras as foreign to me as any distant country. I grew up in a hodge-podge of Catholicism and Protestantism, although my family has distinct Jewish roots. Although the roots were always known to me, my parents never sat me down and told me about the Holocaust the way some Jewish children in America are introduced to it. I didn't grow up with stories about grandparents in Auschwitz or great-uncles who never made it out. But somehow, I knew I was supposed to be doing a service somehow through Holocaust studies.

Some people have actually told me that I should begin to let the Holocaust go, that it's over, that we all should forget about it and start over. But to me, that is preposterous, egotistical even, especially when there are so many survivor issues that still exist today.  As the Everything In Illuminated quote says, everything is how things are now because of the way they were.

The issue with remembering Holocaust and Genocides is that they become about a blank sea of numbers that are too big too imagine. You hear the oft touted 6 million number and cannot wrap your mind around it. Knowing 6 million is a conservative estimate and only represents one targeted group in the Holocaust makes the entire thing mind-blowing. But, like, stars, the stories of the Holocaust and any other genocide needs to be broken down into tinier microcosms, into stories about mothers and fathers and family dogs and special holidays and meals. Only then, when we get to know the stories, that the Holocaust becomes personal. Multiplying one narrative by six million, or more, feels incomprehensible and depressing. However, it is completely necessary in order to make people understand the scope of racism, that genocides don't take away millions of nameless people, but people just like you and me.
Jerry Spinelli, author of Milkweed, so poetically spoke on the subject while being interviewed about his novel. He said, "Because to those involved, there was not a Holocaust of six million, but six million Holocausts of one."

And that is why I study the Holocaust. I can't say why exactly I've been called to that particular tragedy or if I think there's a Divine cause behind it; but certain people are drawn to certain things and take the role of remembering the event very seriously. In addition, I hope to help others intimately understand the Holocaust in order to help them understand humanity and their own prejudices and racism.

It is a bit presumptuous to say "Never again," as is often stated when speaking of the Holocaust. Man is inhumane to his fellow man. But hopefully, through the work I plan to do and the work others currently do, some people will be able to take lessons from the Holocaust and use them in their everyday lives. This can mean something as small as caring for your friends and family, to as large as devoting yourself to a larger cause. One person cannot save the world, but one person can make a dent in his little corner. And that's all we can ask of anyone.

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