It’s the eve of Rosh Hashana. My favorite holiday. Summer is beginning to become a slightly cooler version of itself and Israel will be on lockdown for the second time in six months. Israel has one of the highest infection rates per capita in the world and according to the Ministry of Health, the virus is “out of control.” My cherished tradition of spending the holiday in Jerusalem with my friends has been canceled. Families are packing up, ahead of the lockdown to go be with their families in other parts of the country. In a mass exodus, stores are crowded, traffic crawls and tempers are short. Israelis are frazzled.
Ahead of the lockdown, I went to Ra’anana to buy some of my favorite hand-dyed yarn. Everybody needs a distraction these days. This is mine. The store only allowed two people in at a time and outside, a line formed. Everybody was hurried, nervous, sharp with each other. I stopped by a vegetable shop on Ahuza Street. Lo l’kness! Lo l’kness! (Don’t come in!) the owner shouted, so I turned away.
Rattled, I returned home and went online only to discover that Ra’anana is a “red zone.” Great. Then, on Twitter, I saw a news item trending – some survey about antisemitism. I glanced at the headline and thought I was mistaken. This survey came out last year at about the same time. Then I looked more closely. No, this survey is indeed new, it’s just more focused on American responses than the CNN survey of 2019. Same time, last year. The #Holocaust is trending on social media.
The article read like a litany of doom:
Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. More than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust. Millennial and Gen Z adults between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war. Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust. More than half (56%) said they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms and/or in their communities. Almost half (49%) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.
My first, gut-angry reaction was a wrenching one. I wanted to howl. What is happening in this world? When will things get better?! How is it possible that people are so ignorant?! How come nobody cares what happens to the Jews? I wanted to throw something across the room and hear it shatter.
I’m a little vulnerable right now. Like you, like all of us. My nerves crackle with sensitivity. I want things to be okay again. I want this new year, this new season to renew my spirit and determination to live a good life, to be kind, patient, and healthy. To be a part of Tikkun Olam. But this Olam is in serious trouble and I am not optimistic.
For Jews, the Holocaust was the nadir of a thousand years of Jew-hatred and is a monster that lies in wait and can be awakened at any time. For those who are uninitiated or somehow cushioned against wholesale murderous hate of who they are, this monster is someone else’s problem – if not blame. The spectrum of Holocaust ignorance runs the gamut from the truly, honestly uneducated, and full-throated anti-Semites. Who is responsible for keeping this memory alive? The Jews?
For me, this is personal. Of the 15,000 children imprisoned in or transported through the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived. Gidon Lev, the subject of my book The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is one of those children.
Gidon and I met in 2017. He needed someone to help him write a book about his life. I had never met a Holocaust survivor in person before. Not in real life. Gidon, with his dancing blue eyes, white hair, and joyful laugh defied my expectations of what a Holocaust survivor would be like. Despite my doubts, it didn’t take Gidon long to charm me into taking his project on. I was an editor, after all, and I knew that Gidon’s story was important.
Very quickly, I came to see that Gidon’s life story was not centered on the four years he spent in a concentration camp; far from it. But still, it was a formative experience and changed the direction of Gidon’s life forever. He lost 26 family members in the Shoah. I felt that in undertaking the project, I was obligated to research and get right, the deepest wound of the Jewish experience, for Gidon, for his family, and for the six million.
I immersed myself in study and research. I watched documentaries about the Holocaust, I read stacks of books, I looked at horrifying pictures and spent hours in the Yad Vashem research center. Together with Gidon, I visited Theresienstadt, where I saw, for the first time in my life – “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The blood ran cold in my veins.
As I wrote the chapters of The True Adventures focused on Gidon’s childhood and its harrowing concentration camp realities, I struggled to process what I had learned about the Holocaust. It seemed to me that like ‘time’, or ‘the universe,’ ‘black holes’, or ‘death’, the Holocaust is a kind of super object that defies our ability to make sense of it. The Holocaust is, in the history of humankind, the most thoroughly documented atrocity of its magnitude by both its perpetrators and its victims, yet it still defies our ability – or willingness – to absorb its reality. Imagine if 9/11 happened every day for over five years.
Perhaps “the Holocaust” is, to the survey respondents, unaffected and detached, simply a stand-in for “Some Terrible Thing From the Past.” Humans do have an awful propensity to care only about what is directly in our own line of sight; that which concerns only us. But we owe it to each other – all of us, past, present, and future – to never forget that if human beings were capable of such evil, through action and inaction both, we must also be capable of reckoning ourselves with it. It’s the price that we must pay if we are to learn.
There was an article in the New Yorker many years ago that has always stayed with me. It was about the search for intelligent life in the universe. The article put forth that we are not asking the right question – not whether there is intelligent life in space – but rather, how to define “intelligent life.”
Perhaps we are asking the wrong question about the Holocaust. Instead of asking (if not pre-supposing) whether humanity is doomed to repeat such evil (and if so, when and how) but rather, who is accountable for the shocking level of ignorance about it? For me, the answer is obvious. This is a massive, unconscionable failure of the education system and the taxes that we pay to teach our children to be caring, feeling, responsible human beings in this world. But what are we going to do about it? It is up to us – the grownups, to pressure our school districts, state, and local governments to require Holocaust education in school.
As I prepare to greet Rosh Hashana, celebrated with apples to represent the wholeness, the round completeness of the world, and honey, to symbolize the sweet new beginning of another year, I think of something Golda Meir said: “Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew cannot allow himself,” and then something occurs to me. I reread the article about the survey and notice that toward the very end, there is another survey result, one that would be easy to miss, so jarring are the other statistics noted:
“However, almost two-thirds (64%) of American millennial and Gen Z adults believe Holocaust education should be compulsory in schools. Seven out of 10 said it was not acceptable for an individual to hold neo-Nazi views.”
Of the one-thousand respondents in the survey, most want to know more about the Holocaust and the hate that caused it. Most think that these studies should be required in school. Most recognize hate when they see it. Ignorance is not the same as an endorsement, tacit agreement, or even neutrality. It’s an invitation and an opportunity for us, the shocked, the outraged, the sad, and upset about this survey to step up our responsibility for the education of our children and grandchildren.
We cannot afford to be passive recipients of bad news; we are guardians of the past and the agents of the future. Right now, in our time – history is not yet written.