I do not like talking about the Holocaust.
I do not think anyone does. Hardly a pleasant topic, the Holocaust is not a downright taboo — we discuss it academically and write books about it; go to lectures about it and study it in school. It’s not like nobody discusses the Holocaust — but nobody jokes about it. Well, nobody should.
A few days ago, I overheard a few students discussing a prank they want to pull next year.
“You know what would be funny?” one asked.
“What?” the others answered breathlessly.
“If we spray-painted ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ on the doors to the school!”
(For those who don’t know, “Arbeit Macht Frei” — Work makes you free — was the slogan at the entrance to Auschwitz, as well as other concentration camps.)
The others wooted and cheered, proclaiming that this was a great idea. And usually I stay out of other people’s conversations — after all, who wants to argue over lunch? — but this time I broke my rule.
“That’s not funny,” I said, keeping my voice frighteningly level.
“You know, if you make a joke out of something, you break the taboo. By making it funny, you desensitize yourself to the topic. The Holocaust is not meant to be funny, and you are not meant to desensitize yourself to it.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t get so touchy, Leora.”
“If you want to call me touchy, fine. Likening school, however, to Auschwitz by creating an identical entrance and not expecting me to reject that idiocy — to not “be touchy” — is ridiculous. Your hatred of school does not equal the murder of twelve million, six million of whom where Jews.”
“You’re saying that humor inherently devalues things. That’s not what we mean. You’re totally misunderstanding it. It’s just a joke.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” I retorted. “I’m saying genocide is not a joke — and you seem to think it is.”
I walked away.
Now, I don’t think these kids are anti-Semitic; I just think they’re stupid. For them, the Holocaust means little. They probably don’t know any Holocaust survivors. Their knowledge of the Holocaust (and really, of genocide in general) stems from mandatory book reports about Anne Frank and Primo Levi, if they’re really lucky.
But would someone have even entertained the discussion of spray-painted mock genocide sixty years ago? Fifty? Twenty?
It’s hard to say — but catastrophic memories were still ripe, and the parents of many children were still Holocaust survivors. Now, their grandparents and great-grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and they’re aren’t about the come to school and see the damage.
Seventy years after the greatest evil mankind has yet known, our children (and their friends) forget its evils and try to “de-stigmatize” them. Some things are just not meant to be funny or de-stigmatized. Some things are meant to remain horrible and evil and scary and beyond any words.
So why must those words be reduced to an inky “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the school doors?