In my last year of university, I was standing with a group of folks from my Holocaust film class. One girl decided to reveal that her ex-boyfriend’s grandfather was a member of the Einsatzgruppen, and isn’t that so ironic and funny. Laughter ensued. “Ha ha, what a subversive thing to say!”
I didn’t laugh.
I didn’t say anything, either, because I already knew that would be a quick ticket to ostracism. Sure, I could explore the Second World War, the War of Extermination on the Eastern Front and the Holocaust in papers, talk with professors, speak one-on-one with others of similar background. But that particular part of the past is Off Limits in polite conversation even when the topic turns to World War Two; the west has already come to terms with what happened through a set of popular narratives that, at this point, contain trends I find rather insulting. To make things clear, I am not Jewish; and I do not want to elevate the atrocities faced by Poles to the level of genocide. However, the Occupation was still an ugly thing for Poles. Last summer I documented my grandparents’ stories in my notebook to get a better handle on What Happened. My relationship with that part of the past is necessarily complicated by personal feelings.
I’m also immensely interested in how cultures and societies come to terms with trauma, not only on the part of the victim, but also on the part of the perpetrator. The proliferation of Victim narratives after the war, for instance. Questions of historical memory. The kinds of conciliatory narratives that try to flip a perpetrator’s status to that of a victim: victims of dictators, of ideologies, even of those they actually oppressed. I’m drawn to the work of Omer Bartov, who examines the narratives that emerged in Germany trying to reconcile Nazism with the greater German population: who gets blamed? To what degree is the regular citizen culpable for the atrocities of the Nazis? Who was a Nazi? Immediately following the Second World War the overarching narrative became German-as-victim to an Evil regime, denying that collective complacency was tacit support for fascism. In sum:
The public discourse on the Holocaust in postwar Germany has, until recently, largely concentrated either on the social marginality of the perpetrators or the anonymous forces that made it into reality. […] So-called “ordinary” Germans appear to have been untouched by or irrelevant to genocide, and arguments to the contrary have been seen and condemned as attempts to assign collective guilt. The largely defensive reaction to such arguments show the difficulty many Germans still have in accepting that the third Reich perpetrated crimes on such a vast scale with the support and complicity of large sections of the population. Indeed, it is German victimhood…that tends to be stressed again and again. (Omer Bartov, “Defining Enemies, Making Victims: Germans, Jews and the Holocaust”, 794)
The same strain of thought has more recently entered North American discourse concerning the Holocaust, as the increasing popularity of the “good German” in popular film and media attests. I am in no way saying, “All Germans were evil Nazis” (this is inevitably what I get accused of). It is also true that many German civilians weren’t aware of the extent of the genocide, as the death camps were all deliberately located east of Germany’s borders. Yet the denial of complacency as culpability never sat well with me. There’s something profoundly disturbing in seeing an important historical legacy left completely silent in popular historical memory. My family’s suffering written out of the west. This blog post by fantasy author Cathrynne M. Valente talking about The Book Thief is what turned my thoughts this way in the first place—maybe this issue isn’t off limits after all:
Oh my god I am not ok with this. This is so much worse than regular cultural appropriation I don’t know where to start. Like, I am not crazy? Yes, it is his family’s story? But the story of the Holocaust is not one you get to take away from the Jews and be all BUT LITTLE GERMAN KIDS ARE REALLY CUTE AND WISE! Because you cannot be German and write a book about how Germans are super sweet and kind of rascally and adorbs during the war, a book in which no visible German does a visible bad thing and I guess it was all just Hitler, who it is safe to say was a Bad Man but surely did not do it all alone? (Obviously you can, but should you? Yes? Carry on then?)
Basically, this is all based on his mother’s stories of growing up in Nazi Germany and basically no one is going to write a book where they’re all MOM AND ALL HER FRIENDS WERE EXTREMELY FUCKING CULPABLE AND BEAR SOME RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT SHIT THAT WENT DOWN THERE. Because then mom will never speak to you again. Surely someone mom knew did something vaguely in line with Nazi principles? No? THIS IS CONVENIENT.
My discomfort with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is similar: yes, there’s this Jewish boy and all these Jews but the real horror is that the German boy who found that one part of the fence around Auschwitz that wasn’t electrified dies in the gas chamber because…because…
Yet few critics seem to have a problem with that. As if we’re suffering from a collective historical erasure that makes re-framing the Holocaust in this way suddenly acceptable.
The problem extends rather far into western cultural media. To what extent are popular narratives like John Boyne’s Pyjamas a form of victim appropriation? (Boyne is Irish). Taking on one of the most horrific traumas of the twentieth century in a simplified fashion to Make a Point while bearing no connection to the trauma itself can potentially cheapen the issue immensely. Especially when attempting to universalize a very particular experience while parading under the guise of authenticity. Writing about the Holocaust or the War of Extermination requires putting some serious thought into what you’re doing. I’m not saying that an outsider to that side of the war could not write sensitively on the topic, but the level of historical confusion in North America makes me wonder what sort of narratives will find an audience here, and which sorts will appeal to authors and filmmakers. The deep legacy of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe is all but invisible in North America outside of Jewish and other immigrant communities, glossed over, ignored, to the extent that most people don’t Get It—the deep scarring as a result of the War of Extermination, enslavement, Einsatzgruppen, and the Death Camps. The East has not moved on. The war is written into the very landscape. Take a visit sometime, you’ll see.
The popular discourse in the west smoothing over the Holocaust makes it impossible to engage critically with the subject in day-to-day life without immediate objection. I can’t react to offhand comments that I find personally offensive without facing ostracism. Historical memory, through distortion, has become exclusionary for those who suffered or felt the effects of those who suffered. Especially bad because my family history means nothing in current western popular Holocaust/World War II discourse: that many of my relatives were enslaved, shipped to Germany and made to work for those ordinary Germans who apparently totally didn’t support the Nazis in any way…means nothing. And if I do go into that Off Limits territory, either the conversation lapses into uncomfortable silence or else I get accused of guilt mongering.
I wish I could go back to that group of folks and say what was on my mind. Mainly, “That’s not funny.” On that, and many other occasions.
Despite the Off Limits nature if it all.