On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2019

I grew up in Hyde Park, on streets where at least a hundred languages were spoken every day (there were probably more on the residential part of my block alone), and where everyone was pretty much secular, but also observant enough for a kid on the block to think that every part of the world had so many different faiths, and such a variety of languages. It was a magical place to be a child, but in every magical place there are horrors, and, maybe because of what and where we were, I was not sheltered from them.

I saw the tattoos of Auschwitz and heard about loved ones gone, in the Holocaust, or under Pinochet, or the generals in Argentina, or El Salvador, or Guatemala. I knew musicians who had fled Russia and the Soviet bloc, or had been born in labor camps in Siberia. I carried the middle name of a Polish freedom fighter. I guess I lived something close to the old fairy tales our horrible, wonderful ancestors told, where horror walked hand in hand with wonder.

I was an adult before I realized that most people had definitely not grown up alongside the horror as well as the beauty, and had seen Auschwitz tattoos only in movies, if they’d seen them at all. The Holocaust, if they weren’t Jewish (or German, I guess), was something one learned about in school. I don’t even remember the first time I heard about it, although I guess it probably came after a question about the ugly number tattoo, because why would anyone want that when they could put the whole wide world on their arm instead? (Or maybe it came at a protest, or a vigil, because I’ve been going to those since long before I could walk.)

This is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 2019, a year when we should be better and we very decidedly are not. I’ve written about Squirrel Hill, and about Baraboo; I’ve made book suggestions, because that’s what I do. Now, I’m not really sure what to do, or to say. Never forget, we say, but history goes by the wayside in the name of almighty testing, and survivors die, and we are forgetting. Maybe forgetting is less violent than disbelieving, but it is deadly all the same—and, as someone who grew up alongside the shadow of the Holocaust, I fail to understand how it’s even possible to forget.

I don’t really know what to say to bring memories alive, or to strip away the layers of the past. I’m not even sure how to walk others through those fairytale streets where I grew up, filled with beauty and horror and love and sorrow and joy and death, all tangled together. I don’t understand how we’ve forgotten, or how we can watch as bystanders as things that have happened once now happen again. I can tell you that in the past we learned about the Holocaust from comics, and we can learn again: The Nib can tell us the story of Gad Beck; we can delve into Anne Frank’s world with a new graphic novel adaption.

We can remember that those yellow stars, and what came after, hardly happened overnight: they were a culmination of years of hard-forged hate, wrought by small people and official channels. (If you have the energy, Babylon Berlin is an incredible portrayal of those years of hard-forged hate, in a Berlin that might almost be contemporary Chicago, or New York.) We can work against the forging of such hate, today and tomorrow and the day after, and we can work to bring history alive to our students and our peers.

Never forget, I want to say. And I know it’s possible: voices from five hundred years ago can be sharp and clear on the page; there is no reason why voices from less than a hundred years ago should not remain, now and tomorrow and the day after that. There are novels to be read, and histories to be told; there are exhibitions to visit, and people to meet—so many people, and so many stories, even now. There are the holograms of survivors, here in Illinois: stand and talk to them a while, and they’ll tell you their stories. And that is our charge, I think: to stand and listen, and to read, and then to go out into our damaged world, and try to ensure that it does not happen again.