Such a crazy question, right? The Holocaust will never be over. But as a topic for a book, let me tell you, it’s a hard sell. I am an editor and writer by trade, so I am familiar with the fickle publishing landscape. Which is a tough one for any writer, anywhere, on any topic. But recently, a would-be agent told me, and I quote, that “the word Holocaust, like cancer, turns people off.”
For the past two years, I have been working on a book about the life experiences of my Loving Life Buddy (as I affectionately refer to him), Gidon Lev. Gidon is a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, having been imprisoned there from the ages of 6 to 10. He and his mother are the only family members who survived. All others were transported, variously, to Auschwitz and the Izbeca and Warsaw ghettos. To be sure, Gidon’s life has been about much more than the Holocaust; he came to Israel in 1959, was an enthusiastic kibbutznik, served in the IDF, fathered six children and had all of the attendant camping trips, birthday parties, sorrows and illnesses that come with a long life, well-lived. But his experience in Terezin and the brutal loss of his family was deeply emotionally and psychologically formative for him.
Gidon and I just returned from eight days in the Czech Republic. First we went to Prague (magnificent!), then to the place of Gidon’s birth, in Karlovy Vary, and then, of course, to see Terezin. Gidon had been back before, with family members, so it wasn’t his first time revisiting the place where so much suffering occurred. But it might just be the last. Gidon is 84 years old and this trip was hard on him, physically as well as emotionally. For me, there was incalculable value in actually laying eyes on the place of Gidon’s birth – and trauma. Terezin was also the first and only concentration camp I have ever visited. I have been to Manzanar, the Japanese-American internment camp in California, I have been to Srebrenica, in Bosnia, the site of a horrible massacre, but this was something different. Because someone I love dearly was actually there. It is the first time in my life that I have had an actual, personal connection to the Holocaust.
While there were most definitely several large tour groups in both the camp of Terezin itself, the museum and the Little Fortress, the visitors seemed numb, bored and tired. The camp is sprawling and it was hot, to be fair, but I noticed something else. When Gidon introduced himself to tourists, here and there, they were immediately rapt and overwhelmed to meet him. A survivor, in the flesh, not a photo in black-and-white with dense paragraphs below it. A large Dutch youth group surrounded Gidon and peppered him with questions and took many photos of themselves with him. He was tickled and honored. So were they.
At least two tour guides, upon learning that Gidon was there, asked to have their photo taken with him, but when he offered to answer questions, said that they had to keep to their tour schedules and off they went. Tour guides astonishingly managed to both droned and move along at a clip and their tourists looked to be in various stages of boredom and over-saturation, some hanging back and checking their smartphones or sitting down in the shade. To be sure, there are tour guides and then there are tour guides; we were on our own and just didn’t so happen to come across any guides who were enthusiastic, dedicated or, apparently trained to make the experience more than loads of information. It’s not the fault of the guides, it must grow wearisome doing such a thing, day after day, after week after year. And having been on many, many tours in my own life, I can certainly attest to the fact that there are some excellent guides out there.
It’s not the tour guides themselves – it was too much information to take in, too many photos and numbers and maps. It would dull and distance anybody without a personal connection to the Holocaust. But that’s just it. The Holocaust is more relevant today than ever and we have to find a way to make Holocaust education a living thing. There are many fantastic organizations, like The International March of the Living that endeavor to take Holocaust education to the next level. They are doing great work, as are many other organizations, but we have miles to go and fewer and fewer survivors still with us to tell the story. This is an emergency situation.
I think that the Holocaust is a “super object”, something like “time” or “the universe”, that the human mind can’t really take in, in its entirety. It has a paralyzing scope that defies our ability to make sense of it. Especially when we have so many reasons to distance ourselves from it. It was in the past. I am not Jewish. It would never happen again. That was in Europe. Fill in the blank.
Gidon and I returned to Prague, numb and depressed at the same time. We spoke little at dinner but the next day we made the last-minute decision to visit Lidice (leh-deech-ay) a small Czech village about 7 miles outside of Prague that was the site of a brutal massacre, in 1942. Hitler had a temper tantrum, you see, when Reinhart Heydrich, his Arayan pet, installed to rule over what we now call the Czech Republic, was assassinated on May 27th, 1942. Actually, Heydrich didn’t die immediately; he refused to be treated by non-German doctors and died of sepsis, days later. Anyway, Hitler was infuriated. Things had been going so well for him! He had to show the Czech people that he was in total control and that resistance of any kind would be punished. Mind you, the only information Hitler had to go on was a rumor that some of the people in Lidice were connected to the assassination. He was wrong. He dictated a letter to his secretary, for immediate action. Lidice was to be liquidated. I will spare you the details of the savage attack and instead direct you instead to this Wiki article which describes the horror that took place on June 10th, 1942. It is not for the faint of heart. If you are sensitive, do not look at the photos.
It was here at Lidice, not Terezin, that Gidon wept. 98 children from Lidice were sent to Chelmno and gassed in the back of a truck. Others were taken from their mothers and “Germanized” – adopted by German families. They only returned years later. Not one of the victims of Lidice was a Jew. No, they were just an ordinary Czech village and yes, they may have been in favor of the Czech opposition, which was widespread and strong in the now Czech Republic. Hitler had nothing against them except that it was an excuse to kill ethnically inferior Slavs and, of a whim, to show his complete power. The memorial is absolutely beautiful and very moving. Very few people were there, though Lidice had, shortly after it occurred, an impact all over the world. A town in Wisconsin built a memorial for Lidice, and other towns in the US renamed themselves “Lidice”.
Some have asked, and rightly so, why the world got so upset about Lidice, when the Nazis were perpetrating these kinds of horrors on Jews daily and all over Europe at the same time? I think this is perfectly valid and a good question to ask. Likely, was because the people of Lidice were not Jews that the events of Lidice got so much attention on the world stage. We could, as Jews, point to this as just another example of the ever-dispensable Jew, and coupled with the frightening rise in antisemitism across the world and in the US, we absolutely must continue to fight antisemitism at every turn through education, outreach, and events.
But I also see an opportunity in this, something that we can learn. Yes, it should have been enough that Hitler annihilated Jews, Romas, mentally and physically handicapped people, priests, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles and many others. The Holocaust is not only a Jewish legacy; it is a human blight and the tendrils are still creeping toward us.
While we can’t simply erase the racism and xenophobia of one who supports some of the nationalistic, racist leaders of today, but we can warn them that on a whim, of a tantrum, on a dime, they too might be ‘liquidated’ for any number of reasons. Fascism isn’t only about Jews or minorities. It is about letting a rabid beast loose on humanity itself. It knows no bounds, race or color or logic. It demands to be fed fealty. It acts on a whim. Endorsing nationalistic, xenophobic, racist leaders is endorsing your own “liquidation” at a later date.
The citizens of Lidice were brutally murdered on a whim, by an unstable, egomaniacal psychopath, to flex his muscles and demonstrate his might. Does that sound at all familiar? It should.