‘“The Past is Prologue” is my favorite quote from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest because it is a lesson which is rarely heeded as we see history repeat itself again and again.
Words matter, actions matter, as we experience the normalization of words and actions which, collectively, we should find repugnant. If we normalize them, then it is a slippery slope to repeating an ugly aspect of the past.
Recently we commemorated the 77th anniversary of the Allies liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
To lend perspective – that is a slightly shorter frame between the end of the Revolutionary War, where America won its independence from England, and the American Civil War, which preserved the union of the United States.
At the liberation of another camp, Ohrdruf, General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that his troops bear witness to its horror. After his visit, Eisenhower cabled General George C. Marshall, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, describing his trip to Ohrdruf:
“The things I saw beggar description. …The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick … I made the visit deliberately to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ’propaganda.’”
Witnessing the Nazi crimes committed at Ohrdruf made a powerful impact on Eisenhower and he wanted the world to know what happened in the concentration camps. Stories abound of some of the Allied liberators getting physically ill from their encounter with the vilest part of humanity. Many said it gave them concrete realization of what they were fighting for. In our parlance – it gave them their “why.”
The average generation is between 20 – 30 years. That means that four generations have passed since the liberation of the camps.
And yet, the pendulum of time is once again swinging in a dangerous direction as there is a spate of Holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists looking at ways to gain a toehold in our collective consciousness. Expressions abound comparing trivial matters to the Holocaust.
A popular Seinfeld reference to a “Soup Nazi” trended during the show’s long run. People who objected to that terminology (myself included) were told they were “too sensitive” and needed to “lighten up.” Many small steps are all it takes for a collective societal consciousness to normalize what otherwise would seem culturally offensive or morally abhorrent.
In 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany commissioned a study touted as the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z. The study found that a whopping 62% of those surveyed did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of those thought the death toll was fewer than two million. Over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established during World War II, but nearly half of U.S. respondents could not name a single one.
Couple this with the images and even younger generation is receiving in their computer games. Roblox, a collaborative computer gaming platform for children as young as seven has a game which revolves around a concentration camp, including tall watchtowers, gas chambers, and train tracks apparently representing the cattle cars that brought Jews to Nazi death camps to be murdered.
As reported by The Daily Mail, the game features gas chambers which users could operate by pressing a button with the word “execute” or enter to experience the death of their avatar, or the computer figure representing the player, by gassing.
While Roblox released a statement to The Daily Mail in which it said it had removed the concentration camp game and condemned extremism and antisemitism, I am wondering how it ever got up there in the first place – and how long kids were playing with it before it was removed? The lessons of the past have morphed into an online game where life and death consequences were merely score points.
Growing up in Connecticut in the 1970’s, I experienced pennies thrown at me during lunch time, but I was a resilient kid who went up to the person who threw the pennies and thanked them for buying me lunch! When I was called a “kike” (by the same boy who threw the pennies), I asked my parents what that was and there ensued a lengthy conversation about the use of derogatory names of any kind and the hurt they inflict. As instructed by my parents, I dutifully responded to the boy, asking why, if he hates Jews so much, he prays to one. His response? “Jesus wasn’t Jewish, he was Catholic.” I immediately dismissed him as being ridiculous.
And yet, years later when I was living and working at the rim of the Grand Canyon, I was friends with many born-again Christians. Most of the time we exchanged world views and learns from one another. For many employees, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met – and I found myself silently thanking my Hebrew school teachers for the education I received!
Yet one time when one of the other Canyon summer employees, and a born-again Christian realized I was Jewish, his response was to put his hand on my shoulder and say “You’re Jewish? But I like you anyway.” I understood I had the opportunity to make or break their impressions of an entire culture/religion.
The book Maus has been banned by Tennessee’s McMinn County school board. It was claimed it was not the content of genocide nor the Holocaust which was objectionable, but the use of objectionable words and nudity. The graphic novel is innovative for telling the story of cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s father’s experience during the Holocaust by transforming the characters into animal form. Did the school board take offense at the nudity of the cats and mice portrayed as Nazi’s and Jews?
Teaching about genocide – whether the past atrocities of Rwanda, Armenia or the Holocaust, is to teach about the worst of humanity and what happens when fascism and extremism go unchecked. Yet offensive public discourse nowadays is often met with merely a shrug from the public and often by the news media.
According to Michal Krzyzanowski Chair in Media and Communication Studies at Örebro University, Sweden:
“We are now more than ever … faced with language which pre-/legitimizes views, ideologies and positions that were until recently treated as radical and socially unacceptable. The norms of public expression … have now become normalized as no longer deviant but, increasingly, standard elements of public discourse.”
Now, more than ever the need to teach about genocide and Holocaust education is paramount. In May 2020, the Never Again Education Act (HR943), of which Hadassah was a co-sponsor of, was signed. It authorizes various Holocaust education program activities to engage prospective and current teachers and educational leaders. It requires the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop and nationally disseminate accurate, relevant, and accessible resources to improve awareness and understanding of the Holocaust.
This legislation was introduced by Rep. Carolyn B Maloney (D-NY12) who stated: “Our children are not born with hate in their hearts, and by providing educators with the tools they need to teach about the Holocaust, we can ensure they never learn it. Teaching our children about the dangers of antisemitism and hate is a proactive way to stop antisemitism before it even starts.” Hadassah’s Director of Government Relations Karen Paikin Barall was instrumental in encouraging Hadassah members across the country to reach out to their congresspeople and senators to support the Bill through Hadassah’s government advocacy programs.
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Hadassah, as a member of The Combat Antisemitism Movement and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has issued policy statements condemning such act of intolerance.
By banning the book Maus, the Kentucky school board is serving as gatekeepers of important literature and denying the knowledge and education of important world history.
If, four generations later, over 50% of people under 35 do not have a comprehensive understanding not only how the Holocaust happened but that the Holocaust happened – what is the message that this generation is receiving about unchecked hatred toward a people and how will that affect their sense of humanity? The message is there – but do we have the courage to accurately read the warning signs in time?
Maus is not the first book to be banned and it won’t be the last. Banning Maus by a school board unanimously, sends an ominous sign that the winds of the past may be blowing up a storm in the near future. Let’s not let the past be prologue.