Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How to Regain Your Compassion

This semester I made the best decision possible: taking Literature of the Holocaust. I requested a spot because I needed a Modern Lit requirement for my major, and my adviser recommend the teacher. As a teenager I become highly interested in the Holocaust, only to abandon it after learning in 9th grade how the Nazis mistreated Jews and there was nothing the United States could do. Fighting prejudice and injustice seemed much harder when certain stereotypes are ingrained in your psyche, and when genocides continue to occur around the world. We only learned one thing in World Civilization when covering the Holocaust: "Never again." We were then showed why "never again" becomes a difficult motto in the face of Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and the Native Americans. 

That perspective changed when our teacher turned off the lights for one class, rolled down the screen projector, and showed us America and the Holocaust. We learned to our shock that the US DID know about the Holocaust in its early stages, could have saved six thousand Jews just by granting them visas, and ignored the problem until Jews working for the government alerted the President, getting fired for their trouble. Even worse, the government bureaucrat who stopped most of the visas from getting delivered never got punished. Breckenridge Long retired to a ranch and rode horses for the rest of his life. He never admitted his mistake, even when denying Jewish orphans an American sanctuary.

Our teacher then balanced this injustice with All But My Life, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor who has font memories of the US soldiers, even marrying the one who rescued her and ten other girls from an abandoned camp. Gerda Weisman Klein maintained an optimistic determination to survive, since surviving a death camp "was the greatest revenge". Her optimism helped the class brace itself for Night, a much more harrowing and traumatizing read, as well as Tzili, a fictional account of a mentally-delayed girl avoiding the death camps but still suffering when the Holocaust hits close to home.

Holocaust Literature didn't change my life, but it changed my perspective on the individual's power. If we had stopped Hitler when he invaded the Rhine lands, 5 million lives would have been spared. If Breckenridge Long had let go of his Anti-Semitism, then we may have had less refugees crowding the European ports, waiting for Nazi soldiers to drag them onto camps. If Eli Wiesel had listened to the nurse wanting to escort him to safety, he could have avoided Auschwitz.

The novels we read focused on the individual's power by proxy, since they were novels: Tzili, The ShawlWartime Lies, and The Plot Against America. Tzili through her quiet, persistent search for a new home invites compassion for every individual, no matter what their position in life; Wartime Lies explores what a false identity can do to a child's psyche as he hides from war as well as his courageous aunt; and The Plot Against America showed the growth of the author's fictional counterpart in a much more hostile America, with a Nazi-sympathizer as the president and the Jews slowly losing political power.Our teacher combined traditional English teaching to emphasize how the Holocaust stripped the individual of an identity and basic human rights, whether or not someone encountered the horrors of the camp.

I learned how to care for people again in this class, through my love of books and dormant righteous fury. I found what I could do: obtain an internship talking with a Holocaust survivor, write a comic expressing my conflicted feelings, and find more books on the subject.

Will I march in Poland, facing a hail of stones and seeing the horrid barracks? Probably not, unless for research. Will I write a comic that explains an appropriate punishment for Breckenridge Long? Probably, if I do enough research about the time period. Will I remember that every person who suffers is an individual, though? Yes I will. I will remember the voices of real and fictional survivors, those who told us to look at the Holocaust in a new way. We prove Hitler wrong when we see them as people, not as potential hair suppliers or cattle to be herded in trains. Let's keep doing so, even if there are no more Jews in Europe. 

No comments: