Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg

Holocaust fatigue? Get over it. The Shoah must go on.

Perhaps there was too much focus on the horrors and we need to pull back from painful excess, but forgetting is a desecration of those who perished
Hearkening back to when there was an unspoken agreement to speak and hear no evil. (Illustrative still from 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Catskills episode.)
Hearkening back to when there was an unspoken agreement to speak and hear no evil. (Illustrative still from 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Catskills episode.)

“It’s all about us,” the docent at the National Museum of American Jewish History emphasized cheerily, “not the Holocaust,” she whispered conspiratorially, as she handed me the requisite maps and brochures.

Soon after this exchange, I had an experience reminiscent of Snoopy in the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” He begins a solo crooning sweetly about his “cozy house,” “friends to scratch his ear” and other blessings in his life. “Not bad at all,” he sings contentedly after each series of blissful thoughts.

His tranquility is rattled, though, as he recalls the birds who “sit on my stomach” and “dig their claws” into him. As he summons up other unhappy recollections, his anger, as well as the tempo, volume, and thumping of the music, begin to mount. When his fury reaches a crescendo, Snoopy wills himself back to his utopian thoughts and the song gradually retreats to its original syrupy sound.

“How nice,” I chirped with my best middle-child voice. And, in fact, the well-designed displays were intriguing. The museum is organized chronologically and begins the story of American Jewry on the top floor with the arrival of Sephardic Jews in the 1600s from Brazil. Centuries of Jewish life in America unfold as you descend to the lower floors until you are jolted back to the present on the brightly lit street level.

Like Snoopy, I was initially steeped in warm and fuzzy feelings, but as I strolled through time, I also felt a faint churning that increased in intensity until it could no longer be ignored. The docent’s words were hurtful, my innards shouted, and her sentiments about the Holocaust were underscored by the museum’s expansive picture display of Jewish children in the ’50s and ’60s in the newly established haven of American Jewry, the suburbs. While I’ve always known that children of survivors didn’t represent the norm, this depiction fully ignored me.

I too was born in the United States (thump, thump!) and, like many with backgrounds similar to mine, spent summers running through the sprinklers in our Brooklyn playground with kids who would suddenly disappear from our lives. Yet those Mitchells and Susans, whose vanishings were summed up with “moved to Long Island,” represented young American Jewry, and I did not.

While my museum visit a few years ago began my awakening to the ousting of the Holocaust as a sacred cow, I soon realized that I had been in denial of the obvious for a while. Commemorations were becoming areas of contention rather than the fascinations and obsessions they once were; I witnessed someone storming out of a presentation because the music was too uplifting. I also saw the ‘not again’ rolling of eyes whenever my rabbi invoked the subject of the Holocaust during his speeches.

My overdue epiphany on the topic especially resonated when I complained to a friend about the side-dish of Holocaust-related information at the museum, and the expected commiseration was met with a terse “there are enough museums on that.” Any hope of this being a singular sentiment was erased by an unambiguous “I’m frankly tired of hearing about it,” expressed by a friend at a dinner table. We don’t need the Holocaust in order for Judaism to endure, was another sentiment expressed, as was an annoyance with the wrenching documentaries that abound.

While I wasn’t looking, the subject had apparently started to swing back to the silence of the 50s when American Jews and the survivors were guided by an unspoken agreement to speak and hear no evil. It was then too soon for the survivors to talk, and most people were not yet prepared to listen.

I recall relatives complimenting my mother for not constantly bringing up her Holocaust experiences the way many other ‘refugees’ did. She was mostly silent about them, other than with fellow survivors, but like many suppressed thoughts, they sometimes surfaced with a vengeance. I remember someone casually telling her how difficult it was to get a taxi in 1944 when leaving the hospital with a new baby and then my mother furiously demanding to know if that woman realized what she and her family were experiencing that same year.

By the ’60s, after the Eichmann trial, terms such as ghettos, the camps, and gas chambers seeped into people’s consciousness and generated a thirst to know more, which led to countless presentations, books, and museums on the subject. That frenzy, however, had a narrow window and after a short but feverish life, appears to be burning out.

Perhaps there was overkill, and I understand the need to pull back from painful excess. But forgetting is a desecration of those who perished and unfair to the remaining survivors and their descendants, whose voices are once again being muffled. Most important, though, are the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust that will be lost to the complacent silencers.

While I don’t know the precise solution to the declining interest in this topic among Jews, I feel certain that greater minds can, and should, strive to replace the loud “sounds of silence” with the peaceful “harmony and understanding” urged by the Age of Aquarius revelers in the era that first confronted that painful chapter of our history.

About the Author
Florence Berkowitz-Siegelberg grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and she and her husband raised three daughters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She has published several freelance articles and produced a documentary, "The Road From Destruction", based on interviews with survivors. She recently retired from Kingsborough Community College where she taught writing.
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