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The Fire This Time

This is the headline I wake up to today:

"One in five Europeans say secret Jewish cabal runs the world, survey finds."

...and my mind is reeling.

Book excerpt from The True Adventures of Gidon Lev:

In A Primer For Forgetting, Lewis Hyde reminded me of an old Jewish legend.

“…the Angel of the Night, Lailah, places the fertilized soul of a child in the womb, and kindling a light so the soul can see the world from end to end, teaches it about the just and the wicked, those who follow the Torah and God’s commandments and those who do not. When it comes time to be born, the angel lightly strokes the child’s upper lip, leaving a small indentation. Immediately, the newborn forgets all it has seen and learned and comes into the world crying.”

In the Autumn of 2018, CNN conducted a survey. The poll revealed that a third of Europeans said that they knew little or nothing at all about the Holocaust and that one European in 20 in the countries surveyed has never heard of the Holocaust. Americans don’t fare any better. A different survey found that 10% of American adults were not sure they’d ever heard of the Holocaust, rising to one in five millennials. Half of all millennials could not name a single concentration camp, and 45% of all American adults failed to do so.

I am, among other things, dismayed and confused. Hasn’t the Holocaust been represented time and again in major films like “Schindler’s List”, “Sophie’s Choice”, “The Pianist, or “Life is Beautiful”? Aren’t there dozens of documentaries on Netflix about Hitler and his “henchmen”? What about the stacks of historical fiction novels about World War II in bookstores and on Amazon? What is happening?

Maybe the Holocaust just doesn’t matter anymore. Or it might be worse – is it possible that the past doesn’t matter anymore? What are we doing wrong? The usual suspects come to mind: underfunded education systems, smart phones and the dazzling choices on Netflix. The distractions of life combined with our modern day feedback loop of self-centeredness. Movies, those seductive machines of myth-making and happy endings reassuring us that the good guys, who usually wear capes always win and that we need not look back unless it’s the prequel origin story of the hero. Is the Joker more well-known than Hitler these days?

Ok Boomer, comes a voice in my head. Calm down. Maybe we aren’t asking the right questions. It cannot be useful to assume from this survey that 10% of Americans, half of all American millennials and one third of Europeans between the ages of 18 and 34 are stupid, ignorant, lazy or anti-Semitic. Correlation versus causality is important here. We have to be careful. Does not being able to name a Nazi concentration camp signify an endorsement of the Holocaust or is it simply emblematic of a case of collective amnesia and detachment?

I wonder what percentage of Europeans or Americans know about the Uighur in China, or the reasons for and the details of the wars in Syria or Afghanistan? Is that not also shameful? Doesn’t this willful ignorance shine a light on our all-too human tendency to filter out that which we think does not affect us, that seems far away, long ago or otherwise not affecting us, personally?

There has to be a way forward. The horrors that the survivors of Holocaust and other genocides lived through did not begin overnight. Sparks of intolerance turned into small acts of hate, then bigger acts of hate and then violence. Ignorant, xenophobic, racist rhetoric and fear mongering arrived in pamphlets, speeches, and, today, websites. All of this swirls around for a while then settles on dry tinder and ignites. It smolders and smokes before it spreads.

It won’t affect us, we think. It won’t go that far. Then a door swings open, maybe it’s an election or an assassination, or some shocking economic jolt and suddenly, there’s a backdraft and the flame whooshes through, eating societies and cultures up, leaving a burnt landscape of grief, loss, devastation and horrifying implications for generations to come.

How shall we tell these stories when the eye-witnesses are gone? Any way that we can.


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