Why Should You Care?


By Paul Berger

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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Why Should I Care?: Lessons From the Holocaust
By Jeanette Friedman and David Gold
The Wordsmithy, 219 pages, $15

When I was in high school during the early 1990s, I needed very little prodding to study the Holocaust. Historical accounts of the horror and the depravity of the Final Solution, recounted by teachers, textbooks, documentaries and the prerequisite screening of “Schindler’s List” — which our entire school was marched into a movie theater to watch — engrossed me.

Today, apparently, it is no longer sufficient to teach the Holocaust as history. One must make it relevant to the present. That’s where “Why Should I Care?: Lessons From the Holocaust,” a new book by Jeanette Friedman and David Gold, enters the picture. The book places the Holocaust in the context of recent genocides such as Rwanda, and instances of ethnic cleansing in places like Kosovo.

By weaving the anecdotes of Holocaust survivors with testimony from contemporary victims, “Why Should I Care?” illustrates how the lessons of the past are as relevant today as they have ever been. Perhaps more important for some parents and teachers, it also seeks to instill a sense of moral responsibility in its readers by recounting lesser crimes, too, such as the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, which was witnessed by dozens of neighbors, none of whom called the police.

“Whether it’s a single person walking down the street being mugged, bullied, knifed or shot, or a group of people being killed in another country, do not be complacent,” the authors counsel in typically blunt style.

To make this message even more resonant for the Facebook generation, “Why Should I Care?” attempts to break free from the constraints of the printed page by regularly directing readers to online resources. These include excerpts from TV shows, documentaries, movies and even music videos. They range from archival footage of concentration camps to the satirical character Borat singing “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” accompanied by a bar full of Americans.

How useful students will find these links, printed at the bottom of the page and archived on the books’ virtual counterpart, www.whyshouldicareontheweb.com, is debatable. When I followed the link to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archive, I found the embedded videos disappointingly small and devoid of sound — one of the most important and underrated elements of an engaging film. Frustrated, I typed “Bergen Belsen” into Google and clicked on “videos,” and was presented with a range of choices that were easier to watch and just as educational.

I realize that the “Why Should I Care?” approach guarantees that students will not inadvertently land on inappropriate material. But my friend’s son, who is almost 3, can unlock an iPhone and cycle through its menu. I wonder how many teenagers will stick to the prescribed URLs when they have spent a lifetime hunting out information for themselves.

More worrisome though, “Why Should I Care?” which is published by The Wordsmithy, a company owned by co-author Friedman, contains a number of inaccuracies.

When discussing the continuing mystery of the whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg’s body, the authors write that “the Soviets continue to stonewall” — as though the Cold War continues to this day. And I was baffled by the assertion that David Irving was jailed in Austria for Holocaust denial, “which falls under criminal statutes adopted by the European Union in April 2007.” This would seem to necessitate some type of judicial time machine, since Irving was jailed in 2006.

There are a number of fudges and awkward constructions, too, such as the claim that modernity “caused huge economic and social turmoil. One response to this chaos was Adolf Hitler’s creation of the National Socialist Party.”

But my main concern is the editorializing, which sometimes veers into dangerous territory. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the chapter on Holocaust denial, talking about “radical Islamic sects”:

“Israeli and Western ideas are anathema to their [radical Islamic] thinking. The extremists believe that with Israel as the symbol of everything they abhor right in their midst, it must be destroyed like a cancer. That is why the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Imam Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite leader in Southern Lebanon; Hamas leaders, Fatah leaders, Syrian leaders, and other radical Islamists say there never was a Holocaust. In fact, they stand the Holocaust on its head by making claims that the Jews are committing genocide against the Arabs.”

An appropriate comment for the editorial page of the New York Post, perhaps. But is a student textbook on the Holocaust really the arena to lecture children on this and other issues, such as Wahabi control of Saudi Arabia?

It is a shame, really, because there is so much in the book to commend. “Why Should I Care?” presents students with intriguing quandaries. In a chapter on heroism, it recounts how Oskar Schindler — a thief, an alcoholic and a member of the Nazi Party — saved 1,100 Jewish lives. It then compares him to Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who bribed Adolf Eichmann to spare 1,600 Jews (including Friedman’s mother) in a deal that an Israeli judge later denounced as “selling his soul to the devil.”

The book also makes very good use of modern-day parallels. If young people cannot understand how members of Reserve Battalion 101 could have photographed each other as they murdered the

Jews of Poland, perhaps they can see an echo in the actions of American soldiers who photographed each other abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. If they cannot empathize with Jewish children forced into slave labor 60 years ago, then perhaps they can relate to a Cambodian girl forced into sexual slavery today.

But by concerning itself too much with the present, by taking odd detours — such as a section on sex, drugs and alcohol, which asserts that their abuse triggers disrespect, “the first of many steps that leads to genocide” — and by editorializing on the Middle East, “Why Should I Care?” strays too far from a dispassionate, analytical viewpoint of history.

Paul Berger is a freelance writer living in New York.

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