I wish for a moment that time would lift me out of this day, and into some more benign one. But then I feel guilty for wanting to avoid the sadness; dead people need us to remember them, even if it eats us . . .
It happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding.
—Laurie Halse Anderson
For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.
Emmanuel Kant’s litmus test for ethical behavior addresses our tendency to make exceptions for ourselves. He tells us to imagine every single person in the world doing the act in question; untenable results mean unethical behavior. Take jury duty, for example. Such an inconvenience. Lying to get out of it is harmless, right? But imagine if everyone lied to get out of jury duty. Trials without juries would undermine justice throughout the world. Answer: it’s unethical.
So what would happen if every person in the world who knew as much about the Holocaust as I do avoided conversations of the history and evidence whenever it surfaced? Answer: I have an obligation to show up, pay attention, and contribute what I know.
I first learned about the Holocaust in elementary school. Before visiting several Polish concentration camps on The March of the Living, a two-week Holocaust education program for high school students, my studies deepened. Two years later, I rejoined the March of the Living as a consultant to help design a college version of the trip.
I have walked through barracks that remain unchanged since Nazis filled them to the rafters with emaciated bodies. I have been packed with friends in death chambers whose solid concrete walls still bear the deep claw marks of frantic prisoners’ vain efforts to escape. I have stood before grey mountains of shoes, all that remain of countless individuals forced to strip before the impassive gaze of armed SS officers.
I have stood before incongruously green, quiet mass graves mourning souls who were denied dignity even in death. I have read and left memorials for people I’ve never met, whose remains will never be found. I’ve been cowed by the collected ashes of nameless individuals that form an unnatural land mass, a black mountain of undifferentiated death against a pale sky. I’ve seen movies, read books, fingered artwork, and heard music that depict living at that time.
Upon returning to the States, I spent a summer of showers imagining my water replaced by Zyklon B, the deadly gas whose blue stains greeted millions of others who thought they were showering, too. In my worst nightmares I’m imprisoned in camps, hours spent fleeing and hiding, holding my breath while pressed against bruised and muddy corpses, exhaling after close calls, and swallowing my heart when caught out by violent guards. I wake only partially those mornings, seized by a twilit terror that sunlight can’t shake.
Holocaust references have triggered such memories for years and I avoid depictions of these events when possible. I do not deny they happened. I simply follow the path of all mourners who, in time, must let go of their pain so they can function.
I was recently invited to attend the opening of a local Holocaust exhibit and felt guilty because I didn’t want to go. With extensive exposure to its history, accounts, images, camps, survivors, literature, memorials, and artifacts, I didn’t expect to learn anything new about Hitler’s reign of terror. Is bearing witness and sharing my own knowledge worth reopening old wounds?
Genocide is Depressing
I told an acquaintance about the local exhibit opening. When I mentioned my indecision, she chimed in sympathetically, saying the subject “bums you out” and asking why we expose children to such sobering material. She decried teenagers she knew “moping for weeks”.
But that’s how it should be. Education, however jarring, can’t compare with the terror of being stripped of your humanity by government-sanctioned thugs. Rude awakenings are necessary when sleep threatens our safety. The brooding that follows doesn’t destroy peace of mind, it ensures people will defend lasting peace of mind.
I explained to the woman that I didn’t want to skip the exhibit because it would “bum me out”—ignorance isn’t bliss—but that I’m far from ignorant and have personal issues with the material, having spent so much time and energy with it. She nodded again, as if I’d made her point.
Bearing witness is a common theme in Holocaust education for good reason: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. I exposed myself to the Holocaust’s horrors in order to educate myself, and that education means that valuable history will survive another generation. But my knowledge means little if I don’t share it.
Unfortunately, horror can be paralyzing. My experience with all this history has interfered with speaking and writing about it. I haven’t shared as much as my teachers would have liked. The local exhibit is a good opportunity to do that.
I’ve seen horrific footage of animal abuse on factory farms. Witnessing this cruelty is important so you can make informed decisions about your participation in it. But I won’t watch it anymore; I’ve already seen it and taken action. Being vegan removes me from the bloody chain of supply and demand and I encourage others to do the same—there’s no reason to witness more suffering.
I’ve seen the Holocaust’s horrors, too, as closely as anyone can who didn’t suffer them firsthand. I’ve learned valuable lessons about fear, prejudice, apathy, and intolerance, as well as survival, sacrifice, forgiveness, and strength. There’s no reason to witness more suffering.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Then again, if I were face to face with the animals who have been mutilated, drugged, force-fed, and pressed into cages, I couldn’t sit here and type. I’d be searching for wire cutters and blankets and transport and safe havens. Seeing suffering transforms empathy into urgency. And urgency doesn’t just seek to end suffering, but to end it immediately.
If your family were imprisoned in camps you’d waste no time fighting to free them. There’s no state dinner you wouldn’t interrupt, no time of night you wouldn’t call on someone who could intervene on their behalf. Yet during World War II the US government knew about the Nazi concentration camps and denied asylum to boats filled with refugees. Distance diffuses urgency. The details blur and immediacy wanes.
Can I justify avoiding renewed empathy because it pains me? The Holocaust happened because millions of Germans looked away in discomfort. Surely my pain is trivial compared with the suffering that results when ignorance and complacency lead to genocide?
On the Other Hand
In emergencies, airplane passengers are told, tend to yourself before caring for more vulnerable companions. It may seem selfish, but you can’t help anyone else if you’re falling apart. I don’t need to see another image of animal cruelty. I don’t need to see another image of the Holocaust’s horrors.
What’s important is honoring the images already seared in my mind.
I decided to forgo the opening, but I’m thankful others went and learned about this crucial chapter of our history. I hope they’ll tell more people and keep the knowledge alive for another generation.
As for me, I wrote this.