Re-Writing the History of the Holocaust

    April 2012          
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What was lost in the Holocaust?

By Vic Shayne

For nearly four years I worked on writing the life story of a Holocaust survivor and in the end, after publishing my book, I seemed to have more questions than answers, with the biggest one being: What was lost in the Holocaust?

"Lost" is the wrong word

Reading thousands of pages of testimonials, historical references and war stories, I kept coming across the word "lost." For example, "He lost his entire family," or "Yiddish civilization was lost."

My feeling is that lost is too inadequate a word. It's the wrong word. Relatives and friends were not merely lost, but rather murdered. The Yiddish civilization, rich and fruitful, was not lost, but rather destroyed. Belongings were not lost, they were stolen. And people were not lost, they were ruined, taken, abused, tortured, enslaved, imprisoned and traumatized.

Rewriting history is no longer shameful

Now we are living in a period of revisionism. That which was once shameful - to rewrite history because you don't want to face the facts - is now commonplace and accepted behavior.

Holocaust revisionism is a full time job for some people. The internet bears this out. You'll find troves of antisemitic hate speech thinly disguised as a campaign for historical accuracy. But the real reason these people deny the existence of the Holocaust is to diminish its importance and to ignore its wake of destruction. To invalidate one's suffering - an entire people's suffering - by rewriting history is as immoral as one can get.

Fortunately, there are some good and active organizations, including the United States Holocaust Museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that diligently work to educate people on the realities of the Holocaust. Even more, they have become a force for recognizing and validating other atrocities borne of genocide the world over. And if you think long and hard about these acts of hate and destruction, you'll realize that there's no casual loss of life, tradition, health, relationships, communities or even languages.

Yiddish Civilization is a ghost

Millions of us owe our roots to the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Our grandparents spoke Yiddish, a word that simply means "Jewish."

Yiddish represents more than a language, however. It brings to mind an entire culture that was forged out of the wilderness. Jews have a way of turning lemons into lemonade. They were forced into the Pale of Settlement in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. They were not afforded public education or rights. They were given nothing but poor land. But instead of wallowing in self pity and losing their souls, the Jews of Eastern Europe developed a culture rich in law, education, commerce, literature and music.

A glimpse of shtetl life

When I wrote Remember Us, I sought to give readers some insight into this rich and beautiful Yiddish culture. The subject of my book, Motel Schmulevicz, was born in 1916 and had poetic memories of his little shtetl, Maychet, in Belarus. He spoke of town crier calling out to usher in the Shabbas so that all the men would lay down their tools and work and come home to be with their families. He painted the portrait of a little community that walked down to the river during Rosh Hashanah to cast away their sins. And he told me how studying the Torah and Talmud was not merely a religious rite, but a means of better understanding the world at large.

Motel's family of 84 relatives were murdered along with every other Jew in the shtetl by their Polish neighbors when the Nazis came to town. Along with these Jews, and the other millions of Eastern Europe, Yiddish civilization was also murdered.

Murder is a heinous, horrific act. But we cannot allow the world to supplant the idea of murder with "loss." You lose your keys, but not your zayde, bubbie, friends, home and language.

Vic Shayne is the author of Remember Us: From my shtet through the Holocaust, Skyhorse Publishing.


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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