Daughters and the Holocaust
The first time I went to Europe I was thirteen, a girl on the brink of
womanhood. My mother, who was born in London to Russian-Jewish
parents, thought it was important to bring her
three New York daughters to the old abattoir of
Europe as soon as possible. I was just thirteen,
my older sister about to turn eighteen, and my
younger sister only eight. We started with a
month in London, which struck me as the
bloodiest place I'd ever been.
Everywhere we went there were axes, blocks
for resting people's about-to-be
severed necks, torture devises like iron maidens and fingernail
extractors. The tower of
London may have had the Crown Jewels of England, but what I
remembered were the axes and blocks. Anne Boleyn was said to
roam the Tower with her head tucked under
her arm. The National Gallery was full of
pictures of the tortured and their torturers.
Madame Tussaud's was a horror
show of British history narrated in wax.
London Bridge, we learned, used to sport the heads
of traitors on pikes. Tyburn Tree was where they
executed prisoners while the
crowd ate meat pies and oranges and cheered. Europe to
me seemed a blood bath compared to my home
sweet home New York City. (In those halcyon days
of my girlhood, nobody ever told us how the Dutch,
French and British settlers to America
exterminated the Indians). And what was this dark
rumor I'd heard of millions and
millions of Jews being killed in Germany
and Poland just a few short years ago?
"Did people really do these things?" I asked my mother.
"Only in the olden days," she replied. "Now we are much kinder and
The summer was the summer of 1955. The Holocaust
was only a decade behind us and my mother
knew it. Her placid answer was an attempt to be
comforting to a sensitive teenager with
recurrent nightmares. The whole time we were in
London, I couldn't
sleep. The nightmare of European history kept me
awake. I desperately wanted to go back to New York
where things like this
Fast forward to 1994. My daughter Molly is sixteen and we are
travelling in Germany together for the
first time. I am going to do a TV documentary in
Heidelberg where I once lived for three years when I
was in my early twenties. Molly doesn't ask
if the Germans killed the Jews. She knows. She
is a much more sophisticated teenager than I
ever was. She has read the diary of Anne
Frank and many books about Hitler, genocide and anti-Semitism
through the ages. She has spoken to many
Holocaust survivors and heard their stories. She
has seen Schindler's
List and Sophie's Choice on television.
The history of the Holocaust has been a
part of her life ever since she could
remember. But that doesn't mean she takes it for granted. Every few
years, the horror of it hits her again.
On that occasion in Heidelberg, I took her to a Nazi amphitheater
called the Thingstette, high in the green
hills of the Neckar valley, above the lovely
tributary to the Rhine on which the charming city of
Heidelberg is perched. Built by Hitler
youth in 1934, this amphitheater surrounded by
towering pines blasted my consciousness when I
first saw it in the sixties.
"What did they do here, Mom?" Molly asked.
"Screamed HEIL HITLER! And got revved up to kill as many Jews as
"Why do they hate us?" Molly asked.
"Because we're smart and funny and stubborn and
won't give in," I said.
"Oh," said Molly, then in high school, "Just like the kids in my
class. The smart kids get the most shit."
Molly knew. She was at the age where
popularity with her peers was the most important thing in
life. And she was an outsider. She was
quirky and funny and ironic,
with a Woody Allen sense of humor and the
world. A lot of her classmates were intimidated by
her wisecracks. A year or two later,
they would admire and adore her, but at
sixteen, she had a very tough time.
She understood immediately that anti-Semitism was just like high school
kids ganging up on each other for no reason.
So here we are on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's
2002, only six decades
since the biggest pogrom against the Jews in
history, but now our perspective is different. We
have seen Vietnam bleed, Beirut bleed, Jerusalem
bleed. Rwanda bleed, Bosnia bleed, Afghanistan bleed,
New York and Washington bleed. We know the
human animal is bloody. We also know that we
are capable of great kindness and empathy,
but that these qualities are rarer than
murderousness. We know that you don't
have to be German to kill Jews. You can be
Palestinian or Swiss or a hundred other nationalities. We know
that cruelty is not a German characteristic
but a human one. We know that fundamentalists come
in every color, every ethnic group. We know that
killing your neighbor because you do not like his or her gods is
the most enduring curse of our species.
We are more sophisticated now. And so are our
children. We know that genocide exists all over
the globe. We know that we will probably bring
genocide to outer space when, having
despoiled our beautiful planet, we are forced to
settle on Mars or Venus, wearing oxygen tanks so we can breathe.
But we still don't know how to prevent
genocide. And we still don't
know how to explain to our children that we
brought them into a world where people
kill and torture their own kind for the sheer
animal joy of carnage. We still don't
know how to explain to our children that we are
more animal than human, that we are actually
much worse than animals since animals usually
kill to eat and rarely eat their own
species. Yes, lions kill cubs sired by other
lions, but at least there is a Darwinian explanian
for this behavior. Human
murderousness frequently has no explanation other than bloodlust.
We still don't
know how to explain to our children that all our darkest
mysteries are in the human heart and that reason seldom rules there.
We still don't
know how to explain to our children that we will die
and abandon them in this jungle. Perhaps
even then we will not understand why human
beings are so unremittingly bloody. And
perhaps, sadly, neither will they.
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