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Facing the Holocaust and Ourselves, Honestly

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On a cold and dismal day, Carolyn G. sat by the kitchen window, settled into her favorite spot. With her usual cup of tea in one hand and the Menthol Lites that seemed glued to the other, my grandmother greeted me and said, once again, how happy she was to be helping me with my ’war’ project. This was how I always pictured my grandmother, smiling, offering me cookies and watching the Lifetime movie network all day. But, of course, I knew she had lived for 82 years before reaching this point, and had seen a lot of things. She loved to tell me stories, both happy and sad, about when she was younger, so I imagined she would have a lot to say about the Holocaust.

I explained to her what was entailed in my project. I was supposed to find out what American citizens who had lived during War World II knew about the Holocaust. "Let's see," she began, " the war started in 1941 when those Japanese attacked our ships, so I must have been about eight or nine years old. It was just before my holy communion, so what is that, eight?" I was tempted to correct her, in the fact that the war began in 1939, not 1941. However, it was her interview, not mine, so I held my tongue. She continued, telling me of her triple-decker home, among many other Irish families, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. At the outbreak of war, she lived with her two parents, her sister and two brothers. However, soon after, in June of 1942, her brother was called into the service and sent to Europe, along with many of her other neighbors and friends. "He was over in Italy, or maybe it was France. I really can't remember. He was right in the middle of it."

She recalled the day when she found out about the Holocaust with surprising lucidity. " I remember when it first came out about Hitler. In grammar school, we had an elocution teacher and one day she came in and you could tell she was real upset. She came in and said 'Hitler's killing all the Jews.' I remember everyone in the class was shocked. Even the nun who was sitting there gave her this look, like she couldn't believe it. I went home and told my mother and father and they looked at me, stunned, and they couldn't believe it. But it turned out it was true. You were so stunned, you couldn't think."

Besides this isolated event, however, she didn't hear about the Holocaust for quite some time. Considering that the technology and media were much not nearly as great as they now are, it was more difficult for information to get around. "Like I was saying, we didn't have TV. We only had a radio and we didn't hear for a long time after [the start of the Holocaust]. No long distance everything. We just waited until we heard something." Furthermore, she said she hardly ever heard about the Holocaust atrocities. It wasn't until after the war, that the media gave more details about what had happened.

When I asked her what she had heard about the Japanese slaughtering in Asia during the war, she seemed a little confused. After I explained it some more, trying to prod her memory, she said, " Well, of course knew that people were being killed. But more and more is coming out now." I interpreted this response not so much as the truth, but as an attempt to save herself from looking clueless. She didn't seem to know anything about this. Similar was her reaction to non-Jews targeted during the Holocaust. She seemed dumbfounded when I told her about the various other types of people that had died. She did vaguely recall hearing that disabled people were used as test subjects for the euthanasia programs, but this was the extent of her knowledge. Additionally, she referred to the Holocaust as 'Hitler and the Jews,' so I hadn't expected her to know a lot about the other victims.

Throughout the entire interview, I thought it was so strange that she should know so little about something which she actually lived during. For example, she repeatedly mentioned a movie about the Holocaust which she had watched a few nights prior. "In that movie about Hitler and the Jews that I was talking about. It was really awful. It showed them before they went in the ovens, showed them all with no clothes on. Little kids and moms, hanging on to each other and then they all got separated. Men one way and women the other. It showed them right before they died, before they went in the ovens!" My grandmother told this story, along with other recollections of the documentary, with such vivacity and passion. It was evident that the worst things she had learned came from modern sources, not from information during the actual time of the war. Nonetheless, I was not surprised, nor do I blame her for being uninformed. From what she said, as well as what we have learned, the American media did a horrendous job in covering the genocide and other killings in Europe.

Carolyn admitted that as atrocious as the Holocaust was, she herself didn't think of it too much. With the country in the state of war and her brother overseas, she was preoccupied. "All the boys were gone in the service and I was thinking you just gotta get Hitler and those dirty Germans! [ laughing,] And here I am married with a German name, my God."

This made a lot of sense to me. It was not so much that people didn't care about what was going on in the Holocaust; but, they had their own relatives and friends to worry about. "[The war] really didn't affect effect us too much. Except for the boys. Everybody's kids were gone. Everyone was worried about their kids. That's all, really. Before that it was simple living and then, 'This one killed,' and 'He got killed.' It was never the same after that." Regardless of the fact that these men where dying honorably, not in concentration camps, they were still dying. People of that time were, as harsh as it may sound, too busy suffering their own losses to do anything about the Holocaust.

Another issue I noticed was the lack of differentiation between the World War II and the Holocaust. Although I directed my questions specifically to the Holocaust, she interpreted them as my asking about the war in general, informing me on air raid drills and food rationing.

Although unintentionally, I think she failed to appreciate the extent of the Holocaust. It was not just 'Hitler killing the Jews,' but the death, torture and persecution of millions upon millions of people. I think that this was, and is, a common misconception about the Holocaust. People do not know more than a few basic facts about what really happened. The media focused almost entirely on the military aspects of the war and the war efforts within America. How was the public supposed to be aware or to care about what was happening? It is a shame that so little light is shed upon such an immense tragic massacre.

However, the American public of the 1940s is not unlike the American public of today. As we speak, there is a genocide occurring in Darfur and we are doing little to stop it. It is not highly publicized by the media, which instead focuses on the upcoming election and the war in Iraq. It is true, also, that many people are suffering losses of soldiers located in the Middle East. Do we really want to be bystanders, so that people might look back on us regretfully, as we do upon those of 1940s? The similarities between these two scenarios are quite daunting, in my opinion. This conversation erased any animosities that I had held for bystanders of the Holocaust. Instead, I am clearly seeing that I myself am witnessing a genocide but doing nothing to stop it. Through this interview I directly faced a part of history, and I have now turned to face myself.





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