A friend of mine mentors a student through a program with local schools. At a recent event, mentors and their students played “guess the historical person” game.
Everyone wore names on their backs to be guessed by each other.
My friend stepped in to help another mentor who wasn’t getting her student’s clues. To ease mounting frustration, my friend offered “Amsterdam, attic, diary, Nazis,” or some variation thereof.
The mentor, somewhere in midde-age, still couldn’t guess the name.
When finally given the answer, the woman expressed astonishment, but, according to my friend, it was fake, bewildered astonishment. The kind that’s obvious the person doesn’t know a thing about the subject matter. The kind that said she doesn’t know who Anne Frank is.
Pan now to A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal published this spring.
Burgenthal recounts the miraculous story of his survival in Auschwitz as a 10-year-old separated from his parents. One of the most horrific scenes is the Auschwitz death march. (Staying alive during the march became a game the young Burgenthal played to win against Hitler and the SS.)
I had just finished reading Buergenthal’s memoir when I heard my friend’s story. What came to mind was this, written by Buergenthal in his Acknowledgements. Buergenthal, BTW, currently serves as the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
“This book does not have the usual publishing history. I wrote it in English, but it was first published in more than half a dozen other languages. While this is not a unique situation, it is rather rare unless political, religious, or other reasons bar the publication of an author’s books in his native country or language. That was certainly not true in my case. My problem, as I learned on more than one occasion from publishers in the United States and in the United Kingdom, was that ‘Holocaust books don’t sell.’ It is therefore ironic that this book was first published in Germany in 2007 and that it remained on that country’s bestseller list for quite a number of weeks.”
These two stories individually make separate statements. The one about education (how did this woman miss reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl?) and the other about the responsibility of publishers.
Together, though, they say something of a greater magnitude, which words can only insufficiently grasp. It has to do with an insidious, slow-moving disregard for the Holocaust that could settle in over time in the United States. It could inch up on us. Signs will appear akin to one person getting a flu virus, the one before the many.
Like one person ignorant of Anne Frank.
But it could be so gradual, so unremarkable, we won’t know it’s happening. And then there we’ll be — Holocaust books won’t be in bookstores, and new generations won’t even know to miss them, let alone what they could learn from them.