|Memorial at Dachau Photo Credit Jennifer Boyer-Switala (2009)|
Recently, someone inquired about my seemingly morose obsession with the Holocaust. “It’s in the past!” they said, “Why drudge up such horrors?! Why upset yourself so much?!” All I could do was iterate the plea of all who lived and died in one of history’s most tragic events, “Never again…”
I am somewhat philosophical (and, yes, obsessive) and this inquiry had planted a seed. I began to question myself. Why AM I so interested in something that ALWAYS makes me cry and NEVER has a happy ending? As a historian and former psychotherapist, I figured it best to go back to the beginning…
|Dachau Gate Photo Credit: The Switalas (2009)|
My fascination with the Holocaust began when I was ten years old. A neighbor loaned me Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography, The Hiding Place. I was riveted and wanted to read more. Books like The Diary of Anne Frank and The Upstairs Room followed and my budding obsession grew.
As a Freshman in college, I eagerly signed up for the course “The History of Nazism and Fascism.” Here, I was for the first time, introduced to Elie Wiesel’s Night. Since then I have read dozens of books on the Holocaust, but none so powerful as Night. It would be nearly 15 years before I read it again, but certain images or stories stuck in my mind. Most vivid was the story of the sad-eyed angel boy who was hung, but was too light to immediately die and dangled on the gallows for nearly two hours before he finally did.
|Crematorium Ovens Dachau Photo Credit: The Switalas (2009)|
|Oven Dachau The Switalas '09|
Why? Why did that story stand out above all the others? It is because the victim was a small child. An innocent. To kill an adult is an abomination. To kill a child is inhuman. To kill millions of adults and children is incomprehensible. And there it is…the reason I am obsessed.
I have spent the better part of my life trying to understand the incomprehensible…trying to even remotely make some tiny connection to any small piece of sense in it all. I pride myself on the fact that I do a pretty darn good job of empathizing with people – even those with whom I don’t agree – in order to understand their perspective. However, when it comes to the perpetrators of the Holocaust, I can’t. I absolutely cannot wrap my brain around killing a single person, let alone millions, because they were Jewish…or Roma…or Communist…or homosexual…or handicap…etc.
Adding to my bewilderment is my more recent discovery of how widespread the Holocaust was. Everything I had read in the past focused on nations east of Germany. Imagine my surprise to find out that the Holocaust happened in Italy, Denmark, Belgium, and even my beloved France! I had always given Western Europe and the United States a free pass for “not knowing” what was going on. My naïve worldview has been rocked and I hold all nations responsible for their slow response to help. Denmark may be the exception…but that is a story for another blog.
|Never Again Dachau Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer-Switala (2009)|
While I may never understand the Holocaust, I will continue to learn about it and teach about it so it doesn’t happen again. Yes, I may never understand the Holocaust because I embrace all of humanity and value life. In order to even begin to understand, I would have to permit myself to feel honest to goodness hatred and loathing…to allow my heart and soul to become void of all love and compassion. To do this – to allow myself to empathize with the perpetrators for even a brief moment for the sake of understanding - would be to surrender my humanity. And so, I will never comprehend the incomprehensible of the Holocaust. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
Recommended Holocaust Books (please post your recommendations!)
Night by Elie Wiesel (non-fiction – Romania/Auschwitz, Poland)
The Journal of Hélène Berr (non-fiction - France)
The Diary of Anne Frank (non-fiction – Netherlands/Bergen Belsen)
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (non-fiction – Netherlands)
The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Beer (non-fiction – Austria/Germany)
Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk (non-fiction – Auschwitz)
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (fiction - France)