The Holocaust and its aftermath were not often discussed in families of second-generation survivors. In Tel Aviv of the 1960s, Emanuel Rosen grew up …If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died by Emanuel Rosen
Tag Archives: Holocaust
Off topic but strangely not, I am currently reading Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa as a mixed child during the end of apartheid (see below).
I’ve read quite a number of celebrity memoirs in my life, even a few Jewish ones though surprisingly not as many as you would think which is rather ironic considering Jews can talk about themselves plenty. At any rate, I most definitely did not expect to run into the Jewish question in this particular story given that a. Noah is not Jewish, b. he is from South Africa, c. he is African, and d. he is a television host (though shoot, I guess that’s more of a likelihood territory especially since he used to work for John Stewart).
Anyway, and this probably should have been the tip-off, I was reading a chapter called “Go, Hitler.” Now, to make it clear, this is not what it sounds like. Noah had a friend in SA who was in fact named Hitler because his parents and others in SA were under the impression that the name literally stood for “tough guy.” Noah had already gone on extensively about the absurd and deliberate lack of education for both the African and the colored community from the white dominant force. So the people’s lack of knowledge who Hitler was and what he did and subsequent usage of his name, did not offend me as much as it made me uncomfortable.
Fine, whatever, I move on and read. Then however, Noah says the following “I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation…..But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess.”
My first gut feeling was to be completely freaking disgusted. How dare he say something like this? Those numbers were fucking estimates to begin with and I highly doubt my great grandfather, great uncle, great aunt and families who got shot and buried in the forests of Ukraine were ever meticulously documented before their murder. My second feeling after I slept on it was to attempt to approach Noah’s statement from his point of view. And yes, I will say this, a lot of what he says is valid. Yes, there are no numbers of victims of apartheid, of white colonialization, of intertribal warfare and sales into slavery, all they have is estimates and not even good ones. He is entirely justified in looking at the history of his continent in that way.
However. And this is a gigantic however. The Holocaust was just the latest atrocity in the two thousand year old history of atrocities against the Jews most of which were most definitely not documented with meticulous records. There are the post WWII pogroms in Eastern Europe, there are pogroms in Kishinev in 1905-06, there are pogroms in 1880s all over Russian Empire that spurred on massive American Jewish immigration. There are Cossack pogroms in 1648 in Ukraine, there are blood libels and resulting massacres in medieval France, Germany, Poland, etc. Then of course one can’t forget the Crusader massacres throughout the centuries. And so on and on and on into the depths of Jewish history post-exile.
There are no records of how many were killed. What there is the deep, bloody wounded memory going back more generations than any of us can count. And it’s most unkind to forget about the suffering of those people in favor of their distant descendants. But really ultimately, this should not be about who suffered more. It shouldn’t be about saying that this particular set of murders was worse than another. Genocide is genocide is genocide regardless of which group was targeted. It’s the keeping score rhetoric, the my suffering is worse than yours, and to a degree a slight flavor of well Jews are white so….their suffering isn’t quite the same anyway, that made reading that part of Noah’s book unbearable. Can’t we just agree that my people have suffered greatly and his people have suffered and both sides still continue to suffer? Why should it always come down to my pain is worse?
I would like to think that Noah wasn’t going down the casual anti-Semitism route, after all his mother eventually converted to Judaism herself. I want to think that he is doing his very best to understand the history of himself in context of his own people’s experiences. I would prefer that he keeps comparisons such above to a naught because there is no need for them. People have suffered greatly, their suffering was ignored. The end.
I will start my review with a disclaimer. Below are my musings on this amazing book, not what I would call a review in any strict sense.
Why this book?
I first came across this story a few months ago. One of the Jewish groups I am a member of on Facebook, posted a link to a video that was described as showing a few moments in a Polish shtetl on the eve of World War II. I clicked on the link, watched the video and promptly almost burst out in tears at my desk. I’ve watched my share of documentaries on the atrocities of the Nazi genocide and both “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” made me cry so hard that I had given myself migraines. So I thought myself if not immune, then at least somewhat stronger in what I can handle. It’s an entirely different experience to watch the dead when they are visibly dead. It’s heartbreaking. It’s monstrous. But you CAN’T do a thing about it. It’s a whole other kind of hell to watch happy people crowding around a camera hoping to see what’s going on, hoping to get on film, or completely oblivious of the fact that a camera is recording their every moves knowing that within a number of years that one can count on a single hand most of them would be murdered. How do you reconcile the knowledge of the end with visions of mundane times? And then while indulging in my weekly search for a new book to read through my library, I stumbled on Glenn Kurtz’s ” Three Minutes in Poland,” the book spawn of the film. I will honestly admit that I was crying while still reading the intro. This was some feat as I began reading it while commuting to work on a local train and local train ride is not a place where one wants to admit vulnerability.
So how does a film strip translate into a book? In 2009 Glenn Kurtz stumbles on a film of his grandparents’ long ago European vacation while going through stored items at his parents’ house in Florida. Amongst such popular European tourist “traps” as Paris and Switzerland, for merely a day in 1938 David and Lena (Liza) Kurtz visit a Polish town Nasielsk where David was born in the late 1880s and shoot three short minutes in a life of the largely Jewish shtetl a mere year before the Nazi occupation. Its three minutes of sweeping panoramic views of the town’s pride and joy, the synagogue, three minutes of children jumping into the screen, three minutes of people going about their day oblivious to the camera, never in the know what is just around the corner. Kurtz, however, is not oblivious to the significance of the film and gets in touch with the Holocaust Museum in DC to get the film restored and documented as part of the Steven Spielberg Video and Film archive. The entirety of the 14 minute film (both in color and black-and-white) including the 3 minutes in Poland are now available for view at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and can be viewed at this link. The David Kurtz Collection </a
The story could have ended there but in fact it was just the beginning. A granddaughter of a Nasielsk man viewed the video and recognized her grandfather in a thirteen year full faced boy angling for screen time in several separate moments of the film. She got in touch with the Holocaust Museum and eventually Kurtz himself. This discovery took him away from the novel he was trying to write and sent him in a multi-year and multi continent search (even into the bitch of a Polish irrigation ditch) to learn about Nasielsk, to tell as many stories of the Nasielskers still alive and to identify as many people in the film as possible and tell their stories. In the course of the search we meet Morry, Grace, Lesley and others, the few remaining Holocaust survivors of the 80 Jews from the 3,000 strong Jewish community. From some Kurtz learns about Orthodox childhood in a Jewish town. From others he learns gossip from the long ago. From most he learns about their survival in the sea of death. And to all of them Kurtz brings back painful memories while putting them once more face to photo with their neighbors, friends, and parents for the first time since 1939.
Lessons of “Three Minutes”
So. I loved this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. I cried. I smiled. I cried again. And I was filled with love for my people and their strength. This book was a bright light from the time of shadows. It made me once again consider the miracle of my grandparents’ survival. Like some of the Nasielskers, my maternal grandparents were evacuated from their homes to other lands, in their case, Central Asia where they eventually met each other. And like some others, my paternal grandparents spent the war years in the ghetto but were saved by the miracle of geographic chance. They were lucky and here I am. The times for the Jews are once again trying. Anti-Semitism is not eradicated. There is still plenty of hate and violence. This is why it is important to remember these stories, and to give them life. Kurtz says “It’s going back and saying, Yes, there was a world.” This is the world that we must remember, honor and cherish. This is the world of Nasielsk, of Shargorod, of Warsaw, of Vilna, of Kiev. As a child of survivors and the heir of those that made it and those that did not, it is my responsibility to share their story. And in the trying times of today when a Jewish fraternity in my alma mater, UC Davis, gets defaced by swastikas, when a kosher supermarket in Paris gets attacked and people within are killed because of who they are, I must stand up and say along with Kurtz, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”
In time for the Auschwitz Liberation Day, this is dedicated equally to victims and survivors.
For those interested, here are a few more interesting relevant links.
1. A link from a talk Kurtz did for Ted.
2. Glenn Kurtz’s page about the book