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Understanding the Holocaust

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)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (fiction – Denmark – children’s book but VERY well done)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (fiction - Germany/Auschwitz)

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Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for this. It really, deeply affected me. The questions you posed, the desire to understand the perpetrators, the confusion you felt- these have plagued me for some time. Ever since I was a little girl, I have tried to understand and empathize with others. In vain, I have struggled to do so with the creators of the holocaust- the people who sat at the Wannsee conference discussing answers to the "Jewish Question", who performed sadistic experiments on men, women and children, who walked down the rows of people and shot whomever they chose- and I have found no answer. I simply could not fathom the idea of killing so callously, with relish even, and it bewildered me.
In my naive worldview, it never crossed my mind that it might be impossible, that there was no rational explanation. That the men and women who did this were so filled with hatred that they were past feeling- it never occurred to me. I had never thought that someone could be consumed with such awful hatred- and that there might be some people, like Hitler, whom I would never understand.
In a way, it quelled my confusion. I can accept that I will never understand, and it allows me to learn without so many conflicted feelings. So thank you so, so much for linking me to this. (Sorry for the long comment.)

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