MSNBC / YouTube Richard Painter This Is The Face...
MSNBC / YouTube

Until a year ago, I could enter my Holocaust Studies class trusting that at least on one point my students and I unanimously and indisputably agreed: Genocides are bad.

Then came Donald Trump, and then came the Neo Nazis.

On August 11, 2017, just before the start of a new semester, the nation witnessed aghast the violent White Supremacy marches through Charlottesville, Va., which climaxed in the death of three people that weekend. My class enrollment for Understanding the Holocaust through Literature and Film went from 60 to 150. A good sign, I thought.

When I entered the lecture hall, however, I was confronted with something I had neither foreseen nor experienced before: a slightly more hostile audience.

At the first mention of the word Nazis, propaganda, government-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots and bystanders, bodies shifted, throats were cleared, an unseasonal chill cracked the late-summer southern heat block. Am I turning the Holocaust into anti-Trump propaganda? – I could hear my brain self-sabotage. There comes the progressive feminist agenda! – I could hear some of them think. I shifted in my skin and stuttered a tad.

A group of white young men, clustered together in the upper middle section of the amphitheater, made sure to let me know their conservative opinions from the start: verbally, asking disingenuous questions about history, and visually—through Trump-Pence stickers and hats. From the low orchestra where I stood, I unremittingly looked upwards towards them, neck stretched, endeavoring to make eye contact, to gently draw them into my field of reasoning, desperate to elicit a sympathetic nod of agreement. I spent the rest of the semester on pins and needles, overly qualifying my statements every time I used conservatism triggers like oppression, misogyny, racism, xenophobia.  To this new audience, these are just the wearisome pet words of liberal propaganda. My teaching assistants reported hearing such comments from some students on their way out. “I am tired of feeling guilty of being white” the refrain went. I was not guilting anybody for being white: although it would be an effort to make Whiteness lilywhite when reckoning with the Holocaust. Even the implicit yet obvious inference that the Holocaust was perpetrated by “Caucasian” Europeans now seemed in bad taste and in need of qualification. I had to make sure to segue such inferences by explicitly reassuring them “of course, not everybody is guilty or bad.” A small, yet significant, group of white southern students felt offended, victimized even, by being told that people looking just like them, coming from their same fold of civilization (white, western, and Christian) have committed atrocities that are beyond the pale of the imaginable (and acceptable) and whose historicity is unquestionable. Another portion of the class was very receptive to the texts, films and documentaries and engaged in meaningful discussion; African-American and other minority students lowered their heads, retreating into a too well-practiced position of oppressed silence.

On any regular semester, teaching Jewish Studies in a mostly-Christian Southern state presents its difficulties. But the semester after Charlottesville, new challenges I hadn’t foreseen built walls between groups in the classroom, and students remained unable to reach one another across ideological barriers.

Despite my best endeavor to leave Harvey Weinstein out of our space, by the November elections in Alabama when Republican senate candidate Roy Moore brazenly dismissed the accusations of his sexual-predation victims, the issue of women’s vulnerability under patriarchy, in war, genocide, or peacetime, was too much in our face to ignore. A courageous female student was the first to raise the question: “Let alone the Holocaust, don’t we still silence the victims by disbelieving their experience of violence?” One of the young conservative men picked up his backpack and noisily left, punching the door open.

As all educators can attest, there is no worse defeat than “losing” the weak student, even if so many strong ones are won. I kept meaningfully interacting with dozens of wonderful people in class, but secretly all I said was meant to reach, touch, win over those few who were now avoiding looking at me altogether.

The question of how to make the Holocaust relevant, as the past becomes remote and the eyewitnesses disappear, is one over which WWII scholars have been agonizing for decades.

The war is practically as far from today’s students as Otto Bismarck’s campaigns were from me when I was their age. My own answer to the problem, which I was not going to give up even—or especially—after Charlottesville, is to posit the Holocaust within a broad socio-historical context. This context must take into account the entire history of oppression that reduces vulnerable groups to second-class citizens, untrustworthy witnesses, butts of all jokes, vile stereotypes.

For this purpose, during the last quarter of the semester, I bring up other genocides. This unit features a collage of video clips from documentary films and archival news report about Rwanda, the Bosnian rape camps, Guatemala, the Kmer Rouges’ massacres and so on, all the way back to the Armenian genocide. The video collage ends with two heartrending quotes from the remarkable documentary Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery. The reason why I worked these into my video is that, although slavery is not considered a genocide, the way in which its victims were thought and spoken of was in nothing dissimilar from the demonization of all victims of genocide. I wish for students to recognize the discourses of hatred that are the fiber with which the canvas of war, genocide, oppression, injustice is woven. Crimes against humanity whose perpetration is justified by a radical dismissal of another person’s right to be free and equal are profoundly rooted in a mentality and a worldview that builds up over centuries and is there before and after a genocide has taken place.

The conservative Falange got fiercely defensive at this point: “None of this is my fault. Why should I feel bad?” a man with the baseball cap over his eyes said. “If people don’t like it here, why don’t they go back to where they came from?” I couldn’t but wonder if he was talking about me too, with my inescapable foreignness. I assured him that no tribunal would sentence us for the past crimes of our fathers or our nations: but I asked them to consider whether it wouldn’t be constructive to feel a type of sorrow, partly akin to “guilt” (I dare not use the word shame in 21st-century America), for the wrongs we, collectively, have done to each other and the whole biotic community. I saw heads shake in a silent response: No. My heart sank.

Some students felt very comfortable declaring that they didn’t think history matters, that when we see someone being victimized in front of our eyes we have the ethical responsibility to intervene. I had never before met so much resistance to the idea of empathy or merely pity in fifteen years of teaching the Holocaust in America. “I mind my own business” was the answer of one of these students to the question: What would you do if your neighbors were picked up to be arbitrarily sentenced to death or sent to die in a concentration camp? Granted, the student’s answer was perfectly legitimate. But I had hoped a twenty-something-year-old wouldn’t proudly go for one of the two least humane options available (the other one being taking direct part in the killing).

Despite USC President Harris Pastides’ firm response to Charlottesville — “The violence wrought by white supremacists, neo-Nazi organizations and other hate groups has no place on our campuses” a statement read — two separate racist incidents on campus last autumn left everybody aghast. Off campus, the year had started with a mass-murder threat to congregants of Temple Emanu-El in Myrtle Beach by a white-supremacist meaning to emulate the 2015 massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and ended with a series of Swastikas sprayed on street signs all over the Lexington area in December. When I moved to Columbia from New York City, I was surprised to discover here a vibrant Jewish community proud of its old historical heritage who made a big deal of the genteel southern benevolence they had always enjoyed: but in the historical long haul, “always” can be surprisingly relative. The Anti-Defamation League reports that in 2017 antisemitic incidents increased 60% in America. Indeed, the Jews of South Carolina are suddenly feeling a bit less secure than they used to. I myself feel that my background, my accent, my gender are at risk of becoming unwelcome in the classroom.

I can’t but wonder, if images of senseless mass murders don’t touch these young White, angry men, what will? Will even only one of them raise a dissenting voice at the next Thanksgiving table when a family member or a friend makes a hateful remark? Is the post-Charlottesville climate irreparably one of ethical laissez-faire at best? Those specific students did not seem to be in my class to allow for a differing point of view to challenge and perhaps transform their own. They seemed to have come to challenge the process itself of learning. The set of preconceptions they brought with them from the beginning are the armor inside which their anger and fears have the only chance of surviving. I failed at persuading them to leave that armor behind for a mere 75 minutes.

Not without anxiety and sadness, I accepted to teach this seminar again this semester. Because, as T. S. Eliot said, we fight even when we think a cause is lost because our defeat may be the preface to our successors’ victory.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

4 COMMENTS

  1. The Holocaust, the racially motivated murders and riots of the 50’s, 60’s-70’s are just words in a history book to many of today’s youth. They can not relate to it the same way many of us ‘older folks’ have. For us it was closer to a real world experience. We fought against these horrific events whether it was simply being in involved in a movement, or serving in the military, and countless other ways of defending what this country stands for, and living that truth every day of our lives.
    it does not mean they can not ‘learn’, but the empathy that goes with it is something they have to feel. Standing proud when the American flag is raised is natural, and we keep an eye on that flag. We do not divert our attention to those still talking, running to the food stands to beat everybody else, or more recently, letting the bent knee of a concerned athlete sway our conviction or belief that they aere just as loyal as we are down to their very souls.
    Teaching that ‘experience’ or renewing it, has to be a monumental challenge, especially against all the negative pressure we get from the highest office in the land, that can not work to bring this country together by what we all have in common, but to divide us by the very differences that are ours to be proud of and cherish as our individual heritages.

    Thank you teachers, for not giving up, and striving everyday to make a difference.

  2. People who try to deny the Holocaust must have never heard a survivor tell them what they experienced, Never read a survivor’s memoir, never watched any of the movies documenting the systematic extermination of millions and millions of innocent people. How could someone not acknowledge reality?
    Irene Zisblatt is a Holocaust survivor. Her memoir, “The Fifth Diamond” which “documents”(that means it’s true) her tale as a prisoner in the concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Irene Zisblatt is registered as a Treblinka survivor as well.
    Irene says she witnessed and experienced unspeakable cruelty and brutality.
    Irene’s mother gave her four diamonds before they were taken to the concentration camps to be used as barter for survival should she ever escape.
    Irene kept the diamonds from being confiscated by the Nazis by repeatedly swallowing them and retrieving them from her feces.
    One time she says she had to swallow them right after retrieving them from her excrement without washing them off.
    She lost her entire family of 40 members in the gas chambers.
    She was a “guinea pig” for Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed inhumane experiments on her.
    Irene claims she had chemicals injected in her eyeballs by Dr. Mengele, and miraculously gave birth to two children despite attempted sterilization by the Nazis.
    Mengele also removed the tattoo on her arm.(To hide the evidence of Gas Chambers™,of course)
    She was almost skinned and turned into a lamp shade(Don’t look that up, it is true. Remember?) for the infamous Isle Koch. After being selected, she was transported from Auschwitz two hundred miles to Majdenek. But Ms. Koch called in sick that day.
    When Irene Zisblatt was 13 years old, she dodged another bullet when she got stuck in the door of the Krema III gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She should have been sent to the gas chamber long before. (Here she reveals the fact that everyone under the age of 15 was gassed immediately.) On this fateful day, evil monster Dr. Josef Mengele personally ordered her to the gas chamber but the Chamber was too full. Naturally, she tried to squeeze into the gas chamber, but to no avail. She ended up stuck in the door as the prisoners inside anxiously tried to seal themselves in the gas chamber.
    Miraculously, Irene says she escaped not only the “death” camp of Auschwitz, but also a “death march” of “3 months trudging through the snow in the dead of winter”, and “weighed only 40 pounds” at 14 years old. After being “rescued”, she was sent off to the ghettos of Beverly Hills, California.
    Irene didn’t say a word about her “experiences” for 50 years. But decided to tell her tale and sell a book. Her exuberance was quickly recognized and she soon landed a part in a 100% true Oscar-winning, Hollywood motion picture Documentary.

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