Back in the day, I met with a rabbi up in White Plains, NY, about whether he would officiate at my upcoming wedding. Somehow, the conversation—which initially revolved around the fact that my fiancee was not Jewish at the time of the nuptials, as well as his willingness to perform the duties of the ceremony in light of that issue—turned to the forcible conversion of Jews during their history … including the ordeals they endured during the Spanish Inquisition. I lamented that period and the villainy members of my faith experienced, but the rabbi urged me to forgive those who perpetrated such crimes, noting that they happened a very long time ago. The suggestion was that enough time had passed to assuage the impact of the horrors Jews went through in this era, that there was no need to be angry or frustrated at the persecution they had to deal with, owing to the centuries that had rumbled on since.
I was mulling this discussion recently in relation to a recent article in the Times of Israel concerning a photo shared on social media of high schoolers in New Jersey playing a “Jews vs. Nazis” drinking game that used the swastika symbol as a major visual component. A number of comments on the TOI’s Facebook page responding to this article urged people offended by this image to “get over it,” with some texts indicating that because the Holocaust occurred 70-odd years ago, it’s not something to be upset about anymore. No need to get all huffy about this, right? It’s just ancient history.
Or is it? I knew people who survived Auschwitz, and the tales they told me will resonate forever … as well they should. But we are coming to an age where witnesses to the evils of this period are becoming scarcer, where the Internet and all the conspiracy theories circulating on it are instilling credulous individuals with the anti-Semitic belief that the Holocaust never happened, that the documents, photos and films proving its existence were forged, and that the Jews have been disseminating a falsehood at the expense of other human beings in an effort to dominate the media and, basically, hoodwink the world. Many of those who lived through this time are now deceased, including Jack and Bella Bajnon, whom I interviewed as part of a school project in the mid-1980s about their nightmarish ordeal in the world’s most infamous concentration camp. Thankfully, their stories will never disappear, as the transcript of the interview is available as part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s collection for all to listen to and learn from, but I’m worried that too many people subscribe to the beliefs that the aforementioned Facebook commenters advocate—that there’s no reason to mourn the tragedies of this era anymore owing to the window of time standing between World War II and the present. “Get over it,” they say. “Move on.”
Well, I can’t, and I shouldn’t … and neither should you. The anti-Semitic quality of such a directive is quite apparent, as it insinuates the suffering of Jews is immaterial, not something to get upset about. The truth is, there’s not enough years in the world that could mitigate the wickedness of the Holocaust—or, for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition—and just because something’s a “drinking game” doesn’t mean it can be excused from causing affront. There’s more than insensitivity going on here; there’s willful ignorance, and it points to a problem with the kind of education that children and adults have received throughout their lives: an education that outlines the moral implications of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. So many wrongs have occurred during the course of our history, and we should never forget them, as doing so dilutes their meaning to society.
This brings me to the question of why this “drinking game” is to be reviled while other, more hallowed endeavors broaching similar subjects are to be praised. Specifically, I’m talking about the Mel Brooks film The Producers and the Ernst Lubitsch movie To Be or Not to Be—both of which are vaunted comedies that feature Nazis as essential parts of their stories. The fact is, both of these pictures have been criticized as being offensive, with Lubitsch’s wartime effort deemed particularly insensitive because its 1942 release coincided with the atrocities being committed by Hitler’s minions. Nowadays, I look at these flicks as difficult masterpieces … offensive, yes, but also offering moral subtexts that justify their place in cinema: The Producers offers a satirical look at the fine line between bad taste and comedy, while To Be or Not to Be features an affectionate portrayal of actors and the humanity they display during World War II.
A drinking game featuring Nazi imagery doesn’t do either of these things. And maybe that’s the key to understanding why we should be offended at some things and not at others. The ignorance being disseminated isn’t backed up with a legitimizing context—and saying these are “just high schoolers having fun” isn’t an excuse. Plenty of high schoolers have fun in better ways; there’s no need to joke around in such a derogatory fashion… especially when the issues they are making light of are still fresh in the minds of many. Brooks and Lubitsch, despite the controversies surrounding their works, can deliver their creations in the interest of art. Kids playing a drinking game cannot.
I once attended a screening of the Edward Zwick film Defiance that showcased why we should always keep in mind the need to be sensitive to others’ beliefs. The movie was an account of Jewish partisans in Eastern Europe during World War II who fought back against the Nazis; brothers Tuvia and Zus were among the leaders. A number of survivors who lived with this group attended the screening—including one individual who emitted a mournful cry during a particularly powerful moment in the picture featuring a sibling commander.
“Zus!” he shouted, remembering.
To that man, the story being shown onscreen was not so long ago; it was as real as it ever was, and it brought back to him recollections of a time no one should forget. That’s why calls to “get over it” are wrong. That’s why we must always understand that the villainy of the past can never be observed frivolously, no matter how much time has passed afterward.
The rabbi I spoke with years ago was a very smart man, and he had a lot to say about forgiveness and understanding. I don’t, however, agree with him about his words on duration. In my eyes, decades, centuries and millennia don’t diminish the effects of atrocities committed long ago, as their impact still pervades our psyche to this day. Maybe it does have to do with the context, yet it also involves compassion, and that’s something that we need more of in this era. Truly, the Holocaust can teach us that, and this is a lesson that must be broadcast much more frequently. I’d say, without a doubt, that ignorance is always “too soon.” And prejudice should never be tolerated—regardless of what generation it focuses on or who would be most offended by it.
“Get over it,” some might say. But I refuse.
I encourage you to do so as well.