How does one comprehend the unfathomable? How does one grasp how six million Jewish lives were snuffed out by a world gone mad? For me, it was through the lives of Anne and Elie and Sophie and Pavel and many others. Thanks to brilliant writers, I have experienced the Holocaust through literature.
Neither of my parents spoke of lost relatives as their families had emigrated from Russia by the early 1900s. My first in-depth exposure to the Shoah came from reading The Diary of a Young Girl. I was thirteen years old, the same age as Anne Frank when she started her journal. While I was worrying about acne and first crushes while living in a small, upstate town, Anne was worried about having enough food and not being caught by the Nazis while hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Her words were prominently displayed on a poster on my bedroom wall throughout high school and college: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Her journal, found after she perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, remains one of my most beloved books
As a first year high school English teacher, I was assigned to teach Police State in Literature. It was a challenging course, made even more difficult for me as I was replacing a well-loved teacher who purportedly made Brave New World fun.
Instead, the students faced a young, idealist Jewish teacher who had been told to include in the curriculum. Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his life in the Nazi concentration camps The following June, two of my students handed me their yearbook to sign. They had drawn swastikas on my picture. Refusing to sign them, I sadly realized Wiesel’s shattering tale had not impacted them as it had me.
Anne and Elie showed me the Holocaust through teenage eyes. Sophie’s Choice forced me to see it through the eyes as a grieving parent. William Styron’s novel depicted the story of a young mother who was forced by a camp doctor to make a heart-wrenching decision as she entered Auschwitz: She must choose which of her two children would die immediately in the gas chamber and which one would be allowed to live, albeit as a prisoner. Hoping her blue-eyed, blond-haired son had a better chance at survival, she sacrificed her daughter. I read the book when I myself was a mother of two young children. Reading about the grief and guilt that haunted Sophie for the rest of her short, tragic life broke my heart. Shortly after finishing the book, I woke up in the middle of the night screaming, “Don’t take Julie! Don’t take my daughter!”
Reviews of the subsequent movie were outstanding, and Meryl Streep won an academy award for her performance as Sophie. I myself have never seen the film. It was hard enough to read the book.
In 1994, a collection of art and poetry provided a way for me to revisit the Holocaust through the art and poetry by Jewish children who lived—and perished— in Theresienstadt concentration camp. A line in a poem by Pavel Friedman (1921-1944) provided the book’s name. “For seven weeks I’ve lived here/Penned up inside this ghetto/But I have found my people here./The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut candles in the court,/Only I never saw another butterfly.”
The butterfly became my symbol of the Holocaust.Even today, each time I see a butterfly, I am reminded me of that young man standing behind a barbed wire fence wishing for freedom. In honor of Paval and the six million, I wear a chain on my neck with two gold charms: a Jewish star and a butterfly.
In recent years, literature helped me explore the Holocaust from the perspective of those on the other side of those camp fences: people who eked out their lives in war-torn Europe during Hitler’s reign Kristin Hannah’s novel The Nightingale followed the story of two sisters in Nazi-occupied France. The older sister Vianne desperately struggled to do whatever she could to keep herself, her daughter, and her friends—including a Jewish woman and her child—alive. The younger sister Isabelle risked her life to work for the Resistance. The description of physical and emotional deprivation experienced by those living through the four years of Nazi oppression gave me appreciation for the brutal,often deadly, conditions that were a fact of life for everyone—Jews and non-Jews— under Nazi rule.
Through a novel written by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I came to understand how experiences encountered in death camps often haunted not only the survivors but also their children. The Speed of Light, a novel by Schenectady native Elizabeth Rosner, tells the story of two adult children whose lives were shaped by their father’s time in Auschwitz. While Paula tried to bring her father joy through her globe-trotting career as an opera singer. Julian a scientist, lived as secluded, highly structured recluse. ‘My father …carried his sadness with him, under his skin, Julien states.”It was mine now.” How the siblings moved past their father’s demons and redeem themselves was a fascinating read.
I am grateful that despite all that has already been written about the Holocaust, the topic still generates literature that gives us new ways of examining one the darkest periods in civilization. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana. I will never fully understand the horrors endured by so many. But at least through the extensive amount of quality of literature available, I can at least hope we can learn ways to assure “Never again.”