Don’t you dare tell me I don’t understand the meaning of Auschwitz.
When my father and his father and his mother and his sister were violently pulled from their home in Hungary, put inside a train car beyond packed with people, the place where they were taken was Auschwitz.
Almost immediately after they got there, my grandmother and my aunt were murdered, their bodies burned, their ashes thrown on top of a pile containing the ashes of thousands of other Jews. My father and his father, who was named Josef Aron, spent a couple of days in Auschwitz, then were transferred to another concentration camp, then to another. My grandfather, who was all of 44 years old, died in that camp of starvation and exhaustion. My father, who was all of 16, survived.
And so don’t you dare tell me I have no right to say what I am about to say. Which is that I am not at all upset about a recent study that showed that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened in the Holocaust and that this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.
Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.
Jews, as Jews tend to do, freaked out about, were very upset that lots of Americans don’t know what Auschwitz is, don’t know basic facts about the Holocaust. We have become so invested in not only having the Holocaust be a major part of the identity of young Jews but also in the Holocaust being a primary way we present ourselves to the outside world.
To my mind, that is not what we should do, not healthy for us as Jews and not healthy that that’s how the world sees us. Indeed, I have been very disturbed by the increasing proliferation of Holocaust museums in cities all around the world, the ever increasingly technically sophisticated ways these museums are coming up with to tell the story of the Holocaust. We don’t seem to recognize that with holograms and videos and high tech gadgets, we’re turning these museums into genocide Disneylands.
To my mind, there should be, needs to be only two Holocaust museums in the world. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, capital of the world’s most important country, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, capital of the Jewish state of the Jewish people.
I am not at all upset that so many millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. I really don’t think we should be trying so hard, doing so much, spending so much that could be so much better spent on things that would build the Jewish future instead of overemphasizing a horrific part of the Jewish past.
I don’t want the world to think of Auschwitz when they think of the Jewish people. I don’t want that to be the major way we present ourselves to the world, what we want the world to most know us for, for the world to see us most as victims.
I want the world to know about Sinai and Jerusalem and Moses and Torah and Israel and the Jewish contributions to science and the arts. I don’t want the first word that pops into people’s heads when they think Jews to be Auschwitz.
Of course, we must never forget, of course, we must honor the memories of the six million, including my bubbie and zayde and aunt. Of course, the Holocaust must be a sacred part of Jewish history. But it shouldn’t be what most defines us, should not be our major focus.
Rather than know Auschwitz, the world should know that G-d chose us to be His people, a people who venerate the Torah, the greatest ethical document that exists, showing how people are to act, how they are to treat each other, how they are to conduct themselves.
Yes, Jewish history has often been a sad one, but it is filled with much more that, with many joyous and amazing events and people. We don’t have to fret that people don’t know what Auschwitz is; we should be thrilled they know what Rosh Hashanah is and Passover is and Chanukah is.
We have, for a whole lot of reasons, too much abdicated our duty to ensure the Jewish future by spending so much of our efforts and resources on the Holocaust part of the Jewish past. In so doing, we are failing to give the world a true and full portrait of who Jews are and what Judaism is all about.
Jews very much focused on and were upset by the part of that survey that said an increasing number of adult Americans, and a very large number of young Americans, don’t know what Auschwitz is. I don’t think it’s important that Americans know what Auschwitz is. To me, the survey actually was not bad news, though most Jews saw it that way, but rather had this good news. The study found an overwhelming consensus — 93 percent — that all students should learn about the Holocaust at school. And Holocaust denial remains very rare in the United States, with 96 percent of respondents saying they believe the genocide happened.
That’s what matters. That students know something about this terrible chapter, that they have a general sense of what we went through, what we have overcome, that this was an important part of the Jewish story, but very far from the whole Jewish story. What matters is that 96 percent of Americans know that the Holocaust happened.
That should be enough for us. That’s what we need the world to know. The rest is commentary.
“The issue is not that people deny the Holocaust; the issue is just that it’s receding from memory,” said Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which negotiates restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs. “People may not know the details themselves, but they still think it’s important. That is very heartening.”
Indeed it is. As the son of Holocaust survivors, as someone who lost his grandfather and grandmother and aunt and virtually all of his family on his father’s side, whose father was wracked with emotional pain his entire life because of what he had seen, what he had gone through, it causes me to ache when I see literally the billions that have been spent engaging fancy architects to build fancy museums with Hollywood style effects, all to show the worst that happened to us, all to make it seem like all of Jewish history is about 12 hellish years.
Our story is more than 3,300 years old and contains so very many other chapters. What we should be doing is taking all that Jewish money and instead of making sure as many people as possible know what the word Auschwitz means, we should be making sure to come up with ways to engage young Jews, to give them positive reasons to want to be Jews, to want to be involved in the Jewish world, to value their Judaism, to see it as ennobling to their lives, as something that will enrich their lives, not a burden to bear, not a target on their backs.
There are so many other Jewish times and so many other places than Auschwitz that I want Jews to know about and that I want Americans to know about. We need to stop trying so hard to make the world feel sorry for us and instead work hard to show them the beauty and meaning and message of Judaism.
What upset me far more than the survey is when Newt Gingrich, is his ongoing desire to kiss the tushie of Trump, recently actually compared the FBI, yes the FBI, to the Gestapo. It doesn’t bother me if Americans don’t want know what Auschwitz is, but it does bother the hell out of me that a former Speaker of the House doesn’t understand the obscenity of comparing the brave officials of the FBI with the monster killers of the Gestapo.
Newt aside, we just witnessed two of the most beautiful ways to remember the Holocaust, appropriate and healthy ways to learn its lessons without worrying if we can remember all its details. Two ways that showed us the world does care about us, does understand what happened to us and will be with us so that it doesn’t happen again.
One took place on earth, the other in the skies. The first was on Seth Meyers’ late night talk show, where he related the story of how his pregnant wife unexpectedly and quite dramatically gave birth in the lobby of their apartment building. He told the story in a funny and touching way, but it was the end that was amazing.
He noted that he and his wife named their new son Axel Strahl Meyers. The Strahl in there might sound unusual, and that’s because it’s actually a surname — one that belonged to his wife’s grandparents, who were both Holocaust survivors.
Meyers discussed the Strahls, who met each other at a hospital in Austria on the day they were liberated in World War II. “When someone is born, you just have such an appreciation for everyone in your lineage who lived so that you could have this moment,” Meyers said. “So we’re just so happy to give him this name for people who obviously had to work so hard to do that.”
Then we had American astronaut Andrew “Drew” Feustel, who recorded a video message aboard the International Space Station commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In the video, the NASA geophysicist, who is not Jewish, displayed a replica of a drawing titled “Moon Landscape” by Petr Ginz, a Czech teen with Jewish roots who was killed at Auschwitz. Feustel, who received the drawing from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, noted that late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had brought a replica of the very same drawing with him on board the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Ramon and the rest of that crew were killed when the shuttle broke apart shortly after takeoff.
“May the memories of Petr Ginz, astronaut Ilan Ramon and the six million victims of the Holocaust always remain in our thoughts,” Feustel says in the message, before floating away inside the space station
What Meyers said, what Feustel said, has far more meaning, is far more important to conveying the eternal essence of the Holocaust. We should be grateful that so many understand us, are with us, care about us, even if they don’t know exactly how many millions died or what exactly Auschwitz was.