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To be a Jewish child in America, even in New York City, means that there is a certain fissure in your reality. One the one hand, you may (if you are a secular, very assimilated Jew) spend a lot of time feeling like a normal American kid. Then from time to time people remind you that you are not. Another kid in the schoolyard tells you that "the Jews killed our Lord", or someone says that the Holocaust never happened or is vastly exaggerated, or you read in the paper that a KKK official in the South said that Jews are not white people. More importantly, as you move through streets full of Catholics and Protestants, most of whom treat you like anyone else, in the back of your mind you are imagining how in Europe in 1942 you would have worn a yellow star, been shot in a pit, or sent to the gas chamber.
About twenty-five percent of the population of New York is Jewish--meaning there are more Jews in New York City than in Israel--and there is no lack of Holocaust teaching in the schools. Mr. Natoli, the affable, uncle-like Social Studies teacher, writes his version of the Santayana quote on the blackboard in seventh grade: "Those who do not remember the past are DOOMED to repeat it." He capitalizes "doomed" and underlines it twice for emphasis. The whole school is taken to the auditorium and the brief Alain Resnais film, Night and Fog is screened. Twelve year old children watch corpses being stacked and piled, pushed around by bulldozers, sliding down chutes.
But the message is very mixed. On the one hand, we must remember the past; on the other, what happened there could never happen here, because the Nazis were different, and we are not like them. You poke your head outside of New York City and discover that there are people who never learned about the Holocaust, universities where it is regarded exclusively as a Jewish studies issue, and lots more people who think the Jews killed "our" Lord. There are nice, decent, friendly people out there, with no overt sign of prejudice, who when they read in the paper that a seventy year old former camp guard, who murdered with his own hands, has been arrested ask: "When will they let them rest?" Then, there is a vocal minority who run around saying that the Holocaust never happened; that Auschwitz existed, as a prison camp, but that no-one was ever gassed there, that the only deaths were from the same want and privation that the Germans themselves suffered as the Allies closed in.
Here is the basic issue. In 1941-1945, a cloud passed over the face of Europe, and when it dissipated, the Jews of Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland, Greece, and all of Eastern Europe were decimated, along with Gypsies, homosexuals and millions of civilian bystanders to the war. The Holocaust is a human issue; as I say in my closing essay, it is but the largest and most significant of the many genocides in this century, and one of many in human history. The Jews were singled out this time and have been before (it sometimes seems as if anyone, on his way to a fight, stops to punch a Jew on the way) but there have been many other races who were victims.
An Auschwitz Alphabet is the result of many years of reading about the Holocaust, and about the Auschwitz death camp in particular. My introduction to the material, as an adult, was Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, which I have made liberal use of here. Levi, to whom this Alphabet is dedicated, emerged from Auschwitz still a gentle man, with a sense of humor and with strong compassion. He is your best guide to these horrors.
Alphabet represents my own selection (macabre word) of the most significant facets of life and death in Auschwitz. In twenty-six "slices", I have attempted to illustrate the entire human landscape of the camp: Who killed and who died? How did people survive? What happened to the language they spoke? What rules governed the perpetrators and their victims? Where was God?
There are two paths through the material. I have created page-turning links that allow you to read it from beginning to end without returning to the index. Or you can use the index as a jumping-off point to sample those elements that interest you. I considered but am in doubt about the ethics and efficacy of a third pathway, which would put you in the shoes of an inmate of the camp, with choices or events leading to consequences, eg, "On the railroad platform, Dr. Mengele sends you to the right or to the left", with each consequence--eg, being sent to the krematoria--linked to the descriptive material here pertaining to it. I may still add this later if I conclude that it increases the impact, rather than trivializing the material or turning it into a game.
A main objective was to create a place in cyberspace that would bear witness to what happened and attempt to give some kind of purchase on understanding it. Everything important to us, or important to understand, in the "outside" world, should be echoed here.
I have also attached some other articles and materials that pertain to the subject--an interview with Ken McVay and his Auschwitz FAQ, among others.
Please let me know what you think.
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