The Burden of Silence

I was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.

During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.

I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.

Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. 
The Guns of Navarone
 (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. 
The Great Escape
 (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quit attitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.

Posted on November 13, 2013

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