Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why I Don't Read Holocaust Books

I am spoiled.

I have lived a perfect life, a life entirely free from intense suffering. Sure, I have known people—young people, good people—who have suffered from terrible diseases, from impossible hardship. But these people have not been the people closest to me, so these tragedies have not touched me in the most personal way. My faith is strong—but who am I to talk, I whose faith has never been tested?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking for a test. I’m not asking for a tragedy, chas v’shalom. But I fear. I have lived a life without trial, yet I am imperfect. If, given every gift that Hashem can possibly offer, I still am unable to serve Him perfectly (in fact, far from it), where would I be if something terrible happened?

And that’s where the Holocaust books come in. My whole life, I never read any (with the exception of Elie Wiesel’s Night, which I had to read for school). My philosophy, right or wrong, has always been: why make yourself sad on purpose? Besides, I am extremely squeamish, and the details of Holocaust tales have always been too much for me to handle.

Now, a junior in college, one of my classes has required me to read a book called The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn. The author tells his own tale, a man searching for the stories of six of his ancestors who were killed by the Nazis. He travels from the Ukraine, to Australia, to Israel, seeking out his history. His saga is interspersed with comparisons to stories in Sefer Bereishit, as elucidated by Rashi and a modern commentator named Friedman. The author himself is not Orthodox—he was brought up vaguely Reform, and although since then he has ‘discovered’ much of his heritage, the impression I have gotten is that he still takes a secular approach to the validity of the Torah. The book is long, 500 pages, and I am only halfway through. Though it is slow reading, I have, for the most part, enjoyed its intricate rambling and frequent keen insights.

But reading about some of the horrors of the Holocaust, and only just the horrors that occurred to the population of a tiny town called Bolechow, has also frightened me immensely. Reading the book for long periods of time, I feel sucked into a world I am afraid of. The way that Hashem allowed people, Jewish people, religious people, to be treated makes me forget, momentarily, that He is just. When I hear that the Rabbis suffered most—how a Rabbi, his eyes cut out, was forced to dance naked with a woman for the officers’ amusement, I wonder—how? Why?

Yes, I had heard about the evils of the Holocaust before. I had heard of the slaughter, but rarely in such vivid detail. Six million is not just a number. Six million are people, each with an individual story. When I hear the story of a single death I am sickened—multiply that horror by six million, and what happens? I cannot even fathom it.

And that, that is why I do not read Holocaust books. Because yes, it is important to be aware of our history. Yes, it is bad to close your eyes to reality. But I am not as strong as I should be. Hashem has not tested my faith, He has not put me in their shoes. Maybe, in a tough situation, I’d find my hidden strength. I’d like to think I would. But their tests are not mine, and reading about them will not make them mine—it will only confuse me.

As a close friend said, “I’d rather not shred myself up into little tiny pieces just to see if the pieces can come back together when I close the book.”


Ezzie said...

:( Sadly, I relate all too well with this post. I, too, cannot seem to read Holocaust books. I view WWII from the perspective of an American - one who cares about the troop movements, the war portion - not the perspective of a Jew, of one whose people suffered incredible horrors, unimaginable losses.

Perhaps this is due to not having any true connection to the Holocaust. All of my grandparents - even some great-grandparents - lived their whole lives in this country. There are no missing aunts, grandparents, brothers... no children who were murdered in my family. The closest we came to WWII was my grandfather being part of the US Air Force, stationed for most of the war in... Texas.

The few books I have read about the Holocaust are on the periphery of it, or focus on one aspect in a fictional fashion. (Say, the Warsaw uprising.) I read Go, My Son when I was 10 - but that didn't touch on the horrors. From Kletsk to Siberia was yet another fortunate soul who suffered through trials and tribulations - but escaped the camps.

I don't know what this inability says about me - but I don't intend to try and find out, either. We shield ourselves from hurt throughout life... I guess this is just another way I do so. :/

M.R. said...

and yet to remain ignorant is not a proper option either...

My own decision to remain as ignorant as possible came when I watched "Kindertransport." That was the 'happy-ending' documentary and it--

Erachet said...

I totally understand what you mean. I can't really read Holocaust books either. I'm a huge believer in Happily Ever After.

Two years ago I went to Poland with my Israel school, though, and I was forced to face all those horrors that I was trying previously to avoid. I really, really, really did not want to go. I was terrified. But my parents insisted that I go on the trip, especially since my grandparents on my dad's side went through the Holocaust. So I went. It's weird, and maybe it had to do with the atmosphere of the group, but I felt my emunah in Hashem strengthen from that trip. I can't say I ever felt prouder to be a Jew than when I was with a group in Poland, blatantly showing the world that we're still here, the Holocaust didn't succeed, the Nazis lost, good triumphed over evil.

Of course, that still doesn't take away the fact that there were unspeakable horrors during the Holocaust or that we lost six million of our people. But if you think about it, those who survived, it was a miracle. I had to have been. There's no way a normal person could have survived those atrocities without committing suicide or going insane if they weren't killed first. And though that did happen to people, there are also plenty of people who survived and have wonderful families now and have rebuilt the Jewish nation. And that, alone, is a tremendous miracle.

Moshe said...

When I was younger I LOVED holocaust books. In fact, there was a time when I was about 10 or 11 that those were the only books I read. I don’t know why – perhaps because my grandfather is a survivor or because his first wife and kids were are all murdered along with most of his other relatives. Regardless, I was fascinated by the atrocities that took place in recent history. I was amazed that something as awful as that could take place in the 1900s. It scared me and made me proud to be a Jew. I identified with the characters in the stories. I saw my grandfather and I imagined my lost relatives. I would read and wonder what life would be like if the war never happened. Would I be living in Hungary? What would my friends be like? What was life like in the town were so many of my ancestors and relatives lived?

Sure, the stories were frightening and depressing. That being said, it is truly a testament to the strength of the Jewish people. V’hi she’umdah…b’chal dor vador.

RaggedyMom said...

Growing up, the Holocaust was often a very real part of the background - stories, photographs, and the experiences of family members on both sides - so from a young age, it was something that was accepted and acknowledged, and not feared.

What I found interesting as I was getting to know RaggedyDad is that reading about the Holocaust is one of the things that actually sparked his initial interest in Judaism altogether. Having grown up in Russia with almost no connection whatsoever to his being Jewish, it was one of the few topics in recent history that felt close to home for him and a uniquely Jewish experience.

Indeed, later on, as a teenager in Belgium, he always identified as Jewish, whereas his sister (now intermarried/assimilated) always considered herself primarily Russian. He sought out a local, isolated Jew (a Belzer chosid, very random long story) and through his questions about the Holocaust and the Jewish experience/culture, eventually became frum.

So because I know people (though very few!) who have American grandparents (I thought all grandparents had European accents!), I understand why you feel as you do, although I feel so differently.

SJ said...

It seems I am not the only one who grapples with these issues. Perhaps my problem, like Ezzie's, also lies in not having direct family members who perished. Thanks for your perspectives, and for pointing out how important it is to remember that the Shoah is also a testament to the eternity of the Jewish nation despite the inhuman hatred and evil that has risen against us throughout history.

Ezzie said...

On a related note, you may find this post at Jewbiquitous interesting. (RM's comment brought it to mind.)

David said...

This is such an interesting topic. I've never really thought about it.
As the son of two survivors, my childhood consisted of a regular dose of horrifying Holocaust stories. Now that I really think about it, I think this actually numbed me to descriptions of extreme conditions. Visually, I remain very sensitive and squeamish to this day (my dad was very strict when it came to violence and gore in movies), but I am rather numb to the power of words alone. Probably not a good thing.
Huh... I've gotta say, this is really making me think about things...

Northern Light said...

I, too, refuse to read anything remotely related to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for me to be in the shower, and randomly think of it as the term for the gas chamber...We are not immune, we Jews, from feeling the impact of the Holocaust, even if we refrain from reading about it, because it is so short a time ago, and even if we ourselves have, thankfully, not been tested, we have in our collective neshama that sensitivity. And, as Rabbi Benjamin Blech suggested, it could even be that some of us--especially Baby Boomers--in our charmed lives are somehow living out Hashem's justice in this life as gilguls of those who perished.

However, I wish I could protect you from having to face even a moment of terror or depression or fear. I just don't see how suffering with those emotions (other than on Tisha b'Av) enhances the daily joy we are supposed to experience doing mitzvot. Every moment we are alive, our spirits say "Modeh Ani!" to Hashem if we can only appreciate the world that we are inhabiting now.