It is hard for someone, in this day and age, to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. I have trouble making sense of it and I’m supposedly a learned person, one who has visited the excellent Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and – this week — the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
If it is difficult for adults to understand the depth of horror and pain caused by the Nazis, imagine trying to convey that to children. What I have found through my 15 years as a reporter and recent work as a teacher, is that it is images and concepts, more than words and quotes, that help people come closer to understanding it all. For example, there is a documentary called Paper Clips (2004) about a group of students from Whitwell, Tennessee Middle School. A student in the small town, which had no Jews, said it was impossible to comprehend six million of anything, let alone that many people killed. The students decided to try to collect six million paper clips, choosing those objects since Norwegians wore those in their lapels as a silent solidarity gesture with the Holocaust victims. Not only did the idea catch on – with the help of media attention – but also they ended up with 11 million paper clips, enough to include the five million Holocaust victims who were not Jewish. The paper clips were an attempt to illustrate the war’s horror, which can’t be summed up in words and images.
It also does not hurt to let them interact with Holocaust-related exhibits.
Visitors at the D.C. museum walk through a freight car. A sign indicates the freight car is similar to those used to move 1,000 to 2,000 people headed to the concentration camps. At times, the freight cars would hold up to 5,000 people. The heavier the load, the slower the car would go – sometimes as slow as 30 miles per hour – and the longer the anguished trip would be. It was in trains like this that thousands were taken to the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. While the name of the camp is not as well known as Auschwitz, this camp served as a training center for SS concentration camp guards. It was also used as a model for other concentration camps. When American forces, 60 years ago this week, liberated the camp, they found more than 30 freight cars filled with bodies in advanced states of decomposition.
Trying to explain all of this to future generations is not an easy task. The survivors are dying off, and while their stories are being recorded, that also is not sufficient. Ways are needed to explain the terrible moral lapses that occurred in language younger people can understand.
Shoes and Names
I was curious about whether I was right that it is objects more than words that help bring these terrible historic events home to young visitors. One approach I have seen used at museums involves having the visitors come to an area filled with shoes. Each pair of shoes represents one dead person. Seeing a pile of shoes, you get a better appreciation of the magnitude of it all. When visiting the Holocaust Museum on April 26, I made a point of watching the reactions of teenagers and children to the exhibits. Along one hallway, etched in glass, are the names of some of those killed in the Holocaust. As I stopped to try to take this all in and digest it, two teenager girls walked by.
“What are all those names?” one asked.
“Are these all victims? Oh my god!”
Well said, girls.
Sure enough, there was a huge pile of at least 1,000 shoes and it got the attention of a girl walking by with her mother. The girl asked, “How did they get all of those shoes?” I did not hear her mother’s response but whatever her explanation about what the shoes represented, the girl’s response said it all: “Ew!”
A poem is printed above the pile of shoes, a poem by Yiddish poet Moses Schulstein:
“We are the shoes, We are the last witnesses
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers.
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the Hellfire”
I always looked forward to writing about Holocaust survivors who would go out of their way to tell their stories as often as possible to people, in hopes their stories will not be forgotten. Looking back, I am embarrassed at my attempts to understand and connect with them. I remember asking one if he had read Maus, Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. I was reaching for a cultural vantage point to connect. That seems shallow to me now. With a sense of purpose, I would share their stories via my articles, although it was always difficult to convey all the pain and frustration they suffered in the 15 or less paragraphs I was allotted in the newspaper. Coincidentally, it was again shoes that helped explain one part of the World War II story: The American soldiers memories of it.
I have interviewed many war veterans during my reporting work and am always fascinated by their stories. I see them as not just an interview but almost an attempt to have them help me and my readers better understand history. There is one veteran in particular that I remember well. I had interviewed several veterans for an earlier anniversary related to the war. While other veterans had told me war was, for them personally, not dangerous or scary, he was telling me that he was terrified at times. I believed him and thought the others were lying or had selective memory. Perhaps they were feeling macho or defensive. But how was I going to square the varying accounts of these veterans? So I asked him. And what was his answer?
It seems he took an art class once and they were each told to draw a picture of a shoe. He looked at his picture and it appeared perfect to him. He then looked at the picture of a shoe drawn by his neighbor and could not understand how their picture was supposed to be a shoe. He realized it was the same with other people’s pictures – none looked like his. It dawned on him that the shoe assignment was like the memories of war veterans – each took away from the war something different, perceived and recalled in a unique way. I loved this analogy. He stared at me as I excitedly scribbled down his sage words. I think he may have been worried I was going to screw him over and make him look like a coward. At times during that interview, he acted like I was old and mature, mentioning obscure bits of war trivia that I barely understood. But then he’d say self-deprecating things like, “You’re going to go back to the newsroom and say, ‘That man is crazy!’” He also gave me my favorite war quote, which I used as a lead paragraph for one of the stories for the Arkansas newspaper I worked for at the time. “The war was a learning experience,” the veteran said. I learned, he said, “that I didn’t want to do it again.” When I told him I could have guessed that without actually going, he looked like he was going to hug me. I only spent an hour with him but he provided me with a fresh perspective on the war
At the Holocaust Museum this week, there were many great quotes about the importance of remembering what happened during the war. One lesson that can be taken away from the Holocaust is that the authorities in charge are not always right. Sometimes we have to question authority and think for ourselves. It is not enough to do what is legally right – sometimes we must do what is morally right. But even that was difficult if not impossible to do in Nazi Germany without risk of being killed.
I expressed worry that children would not understand the significance of the Holocaust and why it must never happen again. An exhibit at the Holocaust Museum of 3,000 tiles painted by American school children quashed that concern.
Some tiles were about love and peace while others said Hitler must be stopped. Some misunderstood the issues but enough of them clearly grasped the topics. I smiled and grabbed my camera.
I think we can safely assume the younger generations will not forget the lessons of the past.