Michael Feuer
Educator and policy analyst

“Confronting” the Shoah

This is a slightly modified version of a speech I gave one year ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, before a group of approximately 250 military and civilians at the US Army National Guard Readiness Center, in Arlington, Virginia.

When I was a boy growing up in Queens, NY, my family subscribed to a newspaper that was delivered daily, thrown to our front stoop by a kid on a bike with a big basket. It was called the Long Island Press, and not surprisingly it doesn’t exist any more, at least as a real newspaper. In my home it was a needed supplement to that other paper we always read, the New York Times, which modestly claimed to contain “all the news fit to print. ” The Press printed much of the rest of the news that fit…along with many items of rather more local interest.

In the funnies section of the Sunday paper the Press once ran a kind of contest, an early version of a lottery actually, which enticed readers to enter 7 digits into the blank circles of a rotary dial phone – young folks here today who don’t know what that is should see me later – clip it out, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on the envelope, and mail it in (again, my sympathies to those of you who seem puzzled about such arcane terms as stamps, envelopes, and the US Mail), and take their chance to win a big prize: maybe a lifetime subscription to the Long Island Press, or better yet a new rotary dial phone. Anyway, I don’t remember the details of what one could actually win; it’s been more than 50 years.

But I do remember my father’s entry. He carefully wrote, in his best European penmanship, 4-1-1-1-9-4-5.  I detected a sparkle in his eyes, a glint suggesting perhaps his sense of irony knowing that the odds of winning were infinitesimal (he was a wise man who knew something about probability) but also that somehow he deserved to win because of what that number meant. I was impressed, and curious.

“Dad, how’d you come up with those numbers? Isn’t 4-1-1 the number for information? I would have put 1-0-4-1-9-5-2, my birthday.”

“Funny you mention that,” he answered. “I actually did put in my birthday. Sort of.”

Now I was really puzzled, because I knew Dad’s birthday was November 2 (he was always proud to have been born on the date of the Balfour Declaration). He explained: April 11, 1945 was essentially his second birth. On that day American troops came to Buchenwald, the concentration camp just up the road from the lovely town of Weimar, where Otto Feuer had been an inmate for the previous 4 years. As Otto approached death (from cancer), in 1982, he said he was lucky to have had a second life.

In a way, then, I have  confronted the Shoah most of my life. But let me be more precise: I never really confronted the Holocaust itself. Yes, I confronted memories, images, literature, personal stories – interspersed in a quite normal and happy middle class Queens childhood – but never the real thing.   That’s perhaps obvious, the fact that having been born in New York, 7 years after the camps of Europe were liberated, I never experienced barbed wire, quarries, or teenagers trampled by SS jackboots. Still, it’s worth noting the distinction – between confronting the Shoah and confronting knowledge about it. It’s a reminder that the blurring of truth, even when unintended or innocent, risks blaspheming or trivializing memory rather than honoring it.

Worse yet, the blurring of truth can sometimes be the most painful to the very people who deserve most to be remembered truthfully and respectfully. Here’s an example of what I mean.

One of the more controversial topics of post-war psychology, associated ignominiously with a distinguished professor named Bruno Bettelheim, was so-called “survivor syndrome,” a somewhat vague concept that attributed various personality problems like moodiness or depression to one’s prior experiences in concentration camp. As intuitively appealing as this sort of model was – after all, how could the trauma of deprivation, torture, starvation, and constant fear of death not affect one’s personality? – it was fundamentally flawed and to a large extent debunked. Most of the stresses of everyday life are quite evenly distributed among survivors and non-survivors and, if anything, some survivors may actually have developed especially good coping skills. (They would have gladly been spared the training program.) I don’t have the data, but my hunch is that substance abuse and alcoholism, for example, are markedly lower among survivors than in the general population. If survivors were so disproportionately disabled, as the “syndrome” literature suggested, now that most of them are dying of old age one would expect to observe a noticeable dip in the incidence of depression and other problems.   For what it’s worth, it doesn’t seem that sales of antidepressants are suffering…

In any case, my point is simply this: survivors who so courageously rebuilt their lives shouldn’t have to endure silly and insulting suggestions that they are somehow unable to manage or are having trouble adapting to normal life. They did need help with shelter, employment, and education; but suggesting that they were, in general, psychologically damaged goods, caused substantial hurt and in a way gave Hitler a small posthumous victory.

From survivor-syndrome, a myth perpetuated in movies like “The Pawnbroker,” starring the great Rod Steiger, it didn’t take long for the predictable sequel: there emerged in the 1970s a related and similarly half-baked theory, namely “child-of-survivor-syndrome.” Again, the intuition was appealing: kids who grew up in homes with parents who had survived – and who were therefore psychologically traumatized and maladaptive – must be more prone to various psychological and social ills than other kids. It was tempting, I must admit, to blame Hitler for my mischief-making in elementary school, my awkwardness with girls in high school, my devotion and attachment to my family, my on-again off-again religious observance, and my anxieties about writing a dissertation in graduate school.

Except that most of my friends who had similar issues couldn’t use my convenient excuse.

There is comfort in simplistic excuses: a rabbi once told my father that he survived because God wanted him to. That sounded nice, except Dad wondered why God didn’t also choose to help the others in the camp. I remembered this story when a wise Italian Catholic psychiatrist challenged my excuse making. He told me that most of my “unique” problems that I attributed to my parents’ wartime experiences sounded a lot like the problems he had growing up in South Philadelphia. Does that mean that what my parents went through wasn’t special or unique? (My mother, Lucy, of blessed memory, was protected by good French Catholics in Cannes until 1945.) Does it mean that I didn’t have my own issues? Certainly not. But simplistic judgments about how and where personality is shaped, like naive attributions of survival to God’s will, don’t honor the memory of the survivors (or their children), whose situations may indeed warrant special attention and respect.

At times deviations from truth seem politically motivated. One of the more amazing examples concerns the now almost commonplace belief that 11 million people were victims of the Holocaust. I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Walter Reich, for pointing out this distortion, during a visit to Temple Micah, my synagogue Washington, DC. Where did the additional 5 million come from? It seems that an aide to President Jimmy Carter urged him to use the larger number in the executive order establishing the US Holocaust Memorial Council, as a way to include non-Jewish victims. It’s a complicated story, to be sure, and the Council deserves, after all, our collective gratitude for the design and construction of our US Holocaust Memorial Museum, truly one of the greatest of the genre in the world.

Still, there’s this nagging problem of the Executive Order: the number – 11 million – apparently originated with Simon Wiesenthal – talk about irony! – who wanted to universalize the Holocaust in order to evoke non-Jewish sympathies and who admitted, later, to having made up the number out of thin air. (If I were a non-Jew I would be deeply insulted by the suggestion that 6 million Jewish dead are not enough to evoke my sympathies.) Wiesenthal had a complex relationship with Jews and survivors, and I don’t care to speculate about President Carter’s political motivations. But I do believe that this distortion has confounded the reputation of the Council, given comfort and ammunition to Holocaust deniers, and has confused the general public about Hitler’s war against the Jews and his near success in their systematic destruction.

I need to clarify what I mean here. Death is surely a universal phenomenon – whether one dies in the line of duty or in a gas chamber doesn’t change the outcome (to the best of our knowledge). But the cause of death does make a difference and does matter. Remember that on September 11, 2001 more than 3000 Americans were killed by terror; that year 10 times as many died in automobile accidents. As the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz eloquently summarized, “the murder of the Jews of Europe is in a class by itself – not because of the numbers, but because of the ideology behind it, which placed the elimination of an entire people and their culture from the earth as one of its primary goals. It was unique because Nazi propaganda focused so intently on the Jews as an almost supernatural cause of evil, and the German war machine remained devoted to killing Jews up to the very last day of the war, long after it was clear that that war was lost.”

Thinking about the Wiesenthal and Carter distortion, I’m reminded of a famous scene from the Seinfeld show. Jerry is complaining to a priest that a comedian friend has converted to Judaism just to be able to tell Jewish jokes. The priest asks if Jerry is offended by this as a Jew. And Jerry says, “no, I’m offended as a comedian.” Fudging the data – converting 6 million to 11 million – offends Jewish victims and offends history.

If some efforts to confront the Shoah result in errors of commission, subtle omissions can be as damaging. I mentioned earlier the New York Times, so I’ll come back to it with a sad reminder: even this newspaper of record, probably still the most reliable source of journalistic information in the world, found it difficult to confront – and cope with – the Holocaust. As the historian Laurel Leff showed in her 2005 book, Buried by the Times, “the Times consistently placed major stories about the Nazi treatment of European Jews on back pages … and the story of the Holocaust—articles that focused on the discrimination, deportation, and destruction of the Jews—made the Times front page just 26 times [in 12 years], and only in six of those stories were Jews identified … as the primary victims.” Would more Jews have been saved if the Times had put more news of the camps on the front page? Would the American government been moved to swifter military action? We will never know.

I noted that my own confrontation with the Holocaust has been second-hand. Indeed, I believe that because I live in America, the Holocaust will ALWAYS be a matter of history, not personal memory or experience. But other Americans – and here I’m not talking only about survivors who came here and, like my father, embraced their new home and loved the amazing “second life” it enabled – did have direct and personal and unique experience. Maybe the editors of the New York Times were overburdened by political and psychological baggage; not so the brave young men and women who answered the call, put on their uniforms, laced up their boots, packed their bags, and went to war. Many of them did confront the first remnants of the Holocaust, and what they saw, when they entered and worked in the camps they liberated, has surely remained etched in their memory forever.

If you have reason to be in Germany, I encourage you to go to Weimar, a picturesque town that was home to Goethe and Schiller, a favored musical center for Franz Liszt, the place where the Bauhaus architecture movement began. You can take the #6 bus, marked “Buchenwald,” and in 20 minutes you’ll be at the entrance to the camp. The iron lettering above the main gate establishes that “work liberates.” Go to the building that has been converted into a small museum, and watch the authentic newsreel footage, taken by the liberating US army. There you’ll meet my father, Otto Feuer, in April 1945, as he thanks the American people and army for coming to save him and so many others. May that memory be for a blessing.

About the Author
Michael Feuer is Dean and Professor of Education Policy at the George Washington University, past co-chair of the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, Chair of the Advisory Group on Evaluation and Strategy of the Jewish Agency, immediate past-president of the National Academy of Education, and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is based on a speech he gave at the US Army National Guard Readiness Center, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2014)
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