I am the grandchild of three Holocaust survivors. My grandfather had the line of numbers tattooed on his arm, and they all had the terrible memories, the terrible losses.
During my middle school years, now a decade ago, many of us went through what we consider our Holocaust phase. I read every book on the topic I could find, from young adult stories to ghastly nonfiction accounts. And for a year or two I had nightmares about mass murders and torture that were as real to me as my suburban, private-school American life.
Growing up, my school seemed just as involved in remembering the Holocaust as I was. Every year we took trips to Holocaust museums and sat through special classes about the Holocaust. We once even had a Holocaust “fair,” in which each grade set up booths for different aspects of the Holocaust. And, of course, there was the steady stream of survivors who came in to discuss their memories from before the war, their experiences in death camps or work camps, and, inevitably, their joy at seeing the successful continuation of the next generation of Jews.
As young, impressionable students, these speeches left a mark on us. I left the talks feeling more sympathetic for my grandparents, knowing a bit more about the atrocities they’d been through. I felt, in some ways, connected to the past. And I felt the burdens incumbent on us as “the future.”
I never found this strange or unhealthy; this was how I dealt with the guilt of not having been part of the wrong generation — of being one of the lucky ones, of being a Jew who didn’t need to worry about pogroms or gas chambers. But, looking back, I think it was too much.
And I am not the only one. Many young adults are beginning to resent the ways in which the Holocaust has been taught, rejecting the intense focus on it as a central part of history and wishing to embrace a more uplifting Jewish identity.
I don’t know whether my school intended me to react to these programs in the way that I did. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what the point of these programs was to begin with. I gained something personal from them, but I also walked around as a 10-year-old with the guilt of 6 million Jews resting on my narrow shoulders. Luckily, the Modern Orthodox culture that I grew up in offered me many other Jewish pathways — community, giving and learning — so the Holocaust did not make up my entire Jewish identity.
In February, the Beacon, a Modern Orthodox paper that I started at Yeshiva University, ran an article by Binyamin Weinreich arguing for less focus on the Holocaust in the Jewish community. Though the article attracted negative attention for its bold and even callous phrasing, the sentiment nevertheless reflected a growing trend, again displayed in a recent Tablet magazine article by Anna Breslaw. In that piece, Breslaw lays out her suspicions that Holocaust survivors likely had to perform heinous deeds to survive, and argues that younger Jews feel differently about the Holocaust than do their elder counterparts.