I often get asked the following questions when I tell people I love studying the Holocaust: Doesn’t that depress you? Isn’t that sad to read about all the time? That’s kind of morbid isn’t it? The truth is there are long answers to these simplistic questions, they are answers that are heavy laden with philosophy and existentialism. Unfortunately I am not always in the mood to philosophize every time someone asks me about my hobbies.
But I can understand where these people are coming from. The majority of people, even educated people do not read historical texts as much as I do, and most people I come in contact with do not consider and ponder on the implications of certain historical contexts like I do. So I shouldn’t be offended when they ask such ignorant questions. But I am, just a little bit. To me, telling me it doesn’t make sense to study the Holocaust because it elicits depression is like saying, “why do you read your late mother’s journals, isn’t that deeply saddening?” Of course it is sad, of course it depresses the mind and soul. But is that such a terrible thing to feel sadness? One would argue that reading a journal of a loved one who had passed away was cathartic and in a way connected them with their past, and though it brought about feelings of remorse and melancholy, it was worth the experience. This is what I believe about the Holocaust. No matter the amount of sentences that break my heart and make me weep, it is worth the experience. Though it is not family history, I am not reading about perished members of my own family, every person or group I read about is part of the human family. And from this family, from this aggregate of humanity we can find the same connections, the same catharsis and the same sense of joy.
The same could be uttered about watching the news. Why view a program that just reiterates the evil of mankind, a show that shows us the depressing state of the world? Because it informs us, it teaches us, and it reminds us that there is another side to every story. For every act of hate and oppression there are stories of heroism and compassion to be found. The news is nothing but a present form of history. People are so bored with the facts of yesterday, but so enamored and intrigued by the headlines of today, and what will come tomorrow.
So we are brought back to the query. Why do I study the Holocaust? I have never been put behind bars. I have never gone days without food. I have never been bludgeoned or beaten in public. I have never been covered in lice and blood. I have never had loved ones killed. I have never felt a true hopelessness. So how can I relate? How can I look at the suffering of millions and apply it to my life? How can I learn from an experience I will never endure? The answer is quite simple. All I do to make the Holocaust relevant in my life is alter the scope, and adjust the scale. Sure I have never lain in bed at night aching from hunger and disease. But who hasn’t been hungry before? Who hasn’t felt physical, debilitating pain? Who hasn’t known someone that has suffered through, or been victim of a crippling disease?
Of course I have never been held captive behind barbed wire unable to escape. But I have felt similarly trapped. I have felt like the metaphorical escape into the woods nearby was nothing but a dangerous dream. I have felt like no matter my actions, I would remain in one tragic locale. It is not the same thing. And I am not attempting to compare my plight with those of Holocaust survivors. But when I read about someone’s mother being taken away from them in a split second, and the very next moment the father is executed, I relate. I relate because I have a mother, I have a father, and though I haven’t experienced such ineffable pain, I can imagine, I can empathize. And the second those words jump from the page to my head an immense feeling of gratitude hits me. I think about my mother’s smell, and my father’s embrace. I’m immediately thankful for the safety net they’ve provided for me my whole life, and I wonder how I would react if they were ruthlessly taken from me. As a sentence like that is punctuated I say a silent prayer of thanks that I will not ever have to lose my parents like that.
I am well aware that I have not been forced into feeling the extreme hopelessness that the Jewish people felt during the Nazi reign. But I have felt true hopelessness in fleeting moments, moments I don’t quickly admit to, in moments when I thought the darkness would never subside. Just because my lack of hope at times is so much smaller and so less intense than that of Holocaust victims does not and should not minimize my experience. In fact it only enhances that education process for me. Having been through what I only know as hard times, and what to me has felt catastrophic, I feel like I can relate to those who have suffered through unspeakable acts. Everyone has been through things that at the time seemed insurmountable, and unequivocally painful. And reading or learning about others who have been through much more doesn’t subtract from our pain, and it does not mitigate our memory. What it does do is connect us. It reminds us that everyone suffers at different times and at much different degrees, but at the end of the day, we all need a little hope, and we could all use a little more compassion.
"Tragedy is more important than love. Out of all human events, it is tragedy alone that
brings people out of their own petty desires and into awareness of other humans'
suffering. Tragedy occurs in human lives so that we will learn to reach out and comfort
~C. S. Lewis