What I Learned From Growing Up In The Holocaust’s Shadow

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the death camps were liberated. I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish suburb northwest of Baltimore, MD. I had at least one Hebrew School teacher with a number tattooed into her flesh. We did not shy away from what had just happened to us. We did not avert our eyes in shame except to tell ourselves “Never again”. And to justify our resolve to NEVER passively participate in our own genocide ever again, my community taught the Holocaust to little kids like me the moment they felt we were capable of understanding: the world hates you because of what you are. The sooner you learn this, the safer you’ll be.

I, for one, have never forgotten those lessons. I have never forgotten the look in every German eye as they gazed upon their Jewish prisoners. Forgive and forget?

Not possible. Well… history says it is possible — if not to entirely forgive and forget, then at least to do business with. It’s kinda like “Forgive & Forget Adjacent”. Hey — mea culpa! I’ve owned not one, but two autos made by Audi. And Audi has much to be ashamed about.When Audi was operating under the name Auto Union, it struck a deal with the SS, by which more than 3,700 inmates from Nazi concentration camps were put to work for the company.” Further — “Another 16,500 laborers — not interned in concentration camps — also were made to work for the car company in the Saxon cities of Zwickau and Chemnitz, in addition to 18,000 at a plant in Bavaria where more than 4,000 died…”. In the end, “Auto Union merged with Volkswagen, Audi’s parent company, in 1965, dropping the original name in 1985 after a merger… a decade ago, Audi paid millions into a fund set up by the German auto industry to compensate Nazi slave laborers and their descendants.”

I can comfort myself, I suppose, by telling myself “Well, at least they tried to do the right thing in the end”. As comfort goes, that’s pretty cold. But, what allowed American Jews to “forgive” the Germans — to stop seeing them all as ex-Nazis in hiding — was that, it appeared, the Germans stopped seeing Jews as concentration camp inmates — as cockroaches deserving of such treatment. That’s surprisingly hard to make people understand — people who’ve never been looked at as a cockroach because of what they are. It’s not an affect. It’s a straightforward, brutally honest communication from, in essence, one person’s soul to another. “Because of what you are, you are less than me“.

All animals, it seems, communicate in myriad “unspoken” ways — via body language or simply by “looking at” others a certain way. A little fish doesn’t have to literally hear “I’m going to eat you” to appreciate how loudly it’s being shouted by a big fish’s eyes. It’s there. All the little fish has to do is “read it”.

Forgiving and forgetting IS possible. There CAN BE constructive dialogue between diametrically opposed factions — but not if one of those factions (or both) look at the other with contempt. Nothing constructive can happen if one group sees the other as “cockroaches”. That’s not something most humans can really hide. Even when they try to? It’s pretty phony.

My biggest takeaways from Holocaust School were —

  • The Holocaust might have stopped — but only for now.
  • Jew hating is hard-wired into a lot of people
  • Even people who don’t act like they hate you — if you look into their eyes? They hate you
  • Never turn off your “Spidey senses”; if they tingle? It’s for a reason; REACT
  • The only way you can ever trust that a non-Jew might not despise you for being a Jew? They never look at you like you are a cockroach

Anti-Semitism — like racism and beauty — are entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s never up to a racist to say whether they’re racist or not. How the hell would they know? They’re RACIST ffs! Ask the racist’s victim, ask the misogynist’s victim, the bigot’s victim, the anti-Semite’s victim: “Do you feel hated because of who or what you are?” If there’s even a scintilla of “yes”, that hater is whatever the hated says they are. Hate after all is an active verb.

It is perverse that, already, a big part of our conversation — in the shadow of a seditionist insurrection — is “can we forgive and forget so as to move past it?” White people, it turns out, hate having to EVER take ownership for their shit. Can’t we just forgive, forget and move on — like they did already? The problem with saying yes Not only do these scumbags now look at you like a cockroach, now they look at you like a stupid cockroach.

Trust me: that makes it worse.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust

It’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road… Historically, it never ends well for Jews.

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.  In my brain, those camps never went away.

I grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment. From a young age, I was told about this tragedy and shown images that burned into my mind forever. I don’t regret that for a second. I needed to remember these lessons – forever.

I have always been grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today — and for giving me a stone, cold accurate view of the world — and my place in it because of my tribe.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust

According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road…

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.  In my brain, those camps never went away.

I grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment. From a young age, I was told about this tragedy and shown images that burned into my mind forever. I don’t regret that for a second. I needed to remember these lessons – forever.

I have always been grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today — and for giving me a stone, cold accurate view of the world — and my place in it because of my tribe.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

I Grew Up A Child Of The Holocaust

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. 

You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it. We went completely in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

I Grew Up In The Holocaust’s Shadow

I grew up in the 1960’s in a mostly upper middle class Jewish suburb in northwest Baltimore.  Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that the area — and its Junior & Senior High Schools — were known as ‘Kikesville’, get it?

World War II ended 14 years before I was born.  By the time I started attending Hebrew School (beginning when I was 6) , the War was 20 years in the World’s rear view mirror.  Most of the War’s visible impacts were long gone.  But the scars — they were all still fresh for lots of people.  Jews, for instance.

The generation that had been alive during this atrocity now had to inform the next generation that this thing had happened.  They needed to tell us because even though the true horror was over, a new ideal had been born from the ashes falling over places like Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald and Treblinka.  Jews would never ever go like lambs to the slaughter again.  That began with KNOWING that it happened and could always happen again.

It began early — knowing.  Keep in mind — these monsters killed children with not an iota of conscience.  It became important for Jewish children to understand that they could never be completely safe in this world.  You need to have that notion instilled early.  If you don’t learn it early enough, you’ll be surprised or disappointed or crushed when someone you care about or who you thought cared about you turns out to be one of them: A Jew-Hater.

Expect to be hated.  Have a plan — either to calm the situation down or run for the border — already in mind.

NYT2010100712284619C

The image that first got inside my head was this one.  Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto, sometime in April or May 1943.  I saw that kid with his arms up — his terrified eyes screaming ‘What’d we do?  Why us?’  Ironically — though a number of people in this iconic photo have been identified — along with their fate — the boy in the middle — the boy who kind of epitomized how I identified as a Jew — THAT boy’s fate is unknown.

Like a lot of young Jews my age, I identified with that boy.  He was me.

The Warsaw Ghetto — as terrible a place as it was — also was the site of the biggest (not the only) active Jewish Resistance.  From January to April 1943, the Germans were fired on and killed when they entered the Ghetto.  They fired back, of course — in the end, they wiped the Ghetto off the map —

Warsaw_Ghetto_destroyed_by_Germans,_1945

That’s what’s left of the Warsaw Ghetto — 1945.  400,000 Jews were transported out.  The Germans killed 35,000 Jews while starvation and disease killed 83,000.

The Will to Fight Back was born in that place.

When I see people like THIS in America — I know where it leads.

What’s truly horrifying — I absolutely believed as I was growing up that my parents and my community were nuts for shoving the Holocaust down our throats.  The World my generation was going to re-imagine would never allow such a thing to happen in the future.  There’s a reason we don’t let stupid children run things: they’re stupid.  And they’re children.

It truly hurts sto see swastikas here and know it’s not an anomaly.  It’s who this country is and always has been.

Lesson keeps getting learned:  Don’t get too comfortable here.  Don’t get too comfortable anywhere…

You live in a shadow.