The Holocaust and 21st Century

by Writer, Stan Marks

The Talmud insists that a speaker always introduces any discussion with a witticism, joke or even light hearted note. The Holocaust isn't a lighthearted matter, but, I feel, something I recently heard may be a fitting introduction. A reporter is sent to cover Mid East scene. His office window is directly opposite the Wailing Wall. Every day he sees a man praying, but not praying like anyone he had ever seen. He swayed. He bent. He looked up. He prayed in the morning, in the afternoon. After a few weeks, the reporter, as a reporter would, went down and asked the man "I know, it's really none of my business, but I have never seen anyone pray like you do, with such vigour and so committed. Is there any special reason?"

The man nodded. "Well, I pray in the morning for world peace; here, in Yugoslavia, a brotherhood of mankind. Understanding. I go home have some lunch and return and pray again. This time for my family, my grandchildren, my wife and for myself. For good health for everyone everywhere." There reporter inquired, "And what are your feelings after you've prayed. Are you getting anywhere?"

The man shook his head, raised his arms and replied, "You want to know, honestly? I feel as though I am hitting my head against a brick wall."

I am sure we are not hitting our heads against a brick wall in regards to keeping the message of the Holocaust alive, and into the 21st century, and how the world in the 21st century will perceive the Shoah.

For more than twenty years after World War II, the Holocaust was almost a secret, forbidden fruit. There were few books, plays, films or articles about it. I guess in some ways, especially in Australia, I was one of the "pioneers" in opening the door to the Holocaust. I wrote the first novel with a Holocaust theme, set in Australia, in Melbourne. First published in London, then Sydney (1960's), it attracted much attention, but creator of the "Twilight Zone" series, Rod Sirling, who spent some time at our Melbourne home said it was too early. It was. When the Holocaust was still an almost forbidden topic. The plot of my book is about a woman who in Melbourne meets the guard who shot dead her parents in front of her in a concentration camp. It deals with morality and legality. I also wrote a sequel, a short story, in 1980's about the women of the novel. Although you don't have to read the novel to appreciate the short story. Her 21 year old daughter becomes very friendly with a nephew of a convicted Nazi, a man who had personally been responsible for many Jews' deaths.

My wife who had been in two Gulags in Siberia, for six years, did not speak much about her experiences. Indeed, our own son learnt a great deal about her experiences when the book "Child Survivors" about ten Australian child survivors was published in the early 1990's. She is one the ten in the book. Many non-Jewish Australians who read my book argued that the camps and, indeed, what the Nazis did to Jews was exaggerated. I replied, if anything I understated it. Incidentally, the book was optioned and scripted for a film, but that's another story. I recall appearing on a ABC Channel 2 TV programme after my book's publication. I was asked if there were any Nazis in Melbourne, I replied "yes" and named a suburb where they could be found. I received numerous telephone calls of congratulations for doing a brave thing. But, we also had to have a silent line for six weeks following crank calls and threats I received. "We'll blow up your house," one enthused.

The post-war years were a time of silence, of survivors making new lives, raising families and burying, as much as they could, the past. Recreating themselves. Who could understand what they had been through. Who would believe them, despite all the photos and reports when the camps were first opened by the liberators.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, told me as we chatted in his New York apartment, survivors were like people from another planet. Holocaust survivors and those who had suffered in Cambodia under Pol Pot, were quite different. While other atrocities were horrendous and should never be forgotten, the Germans planned and established extermination camps to slaughter, kill off, all Jews. If Hitler's plan of world domination came off, even we Jews living then in Australia would have been exterminated. Germans even used essential war needs such as trains to carry out their diabolical programme. How was I, who had been a student at Elwood Central High School, while World War II was raging, ever understand them? Although I knew about the camps, the Nazi persecutions, etc., it was through Eva (my wife) that I began to be really involved in just what had happened. The local and international view began to change with the arrest of Adolph Eichmann, then the Six Day War. The scene changed. Survivors began to tell their stories, come out of the woodwork. Gradually, there were articles, books, plays, films and seemingly endless personal stories. I wrote many for various outlets, including a front page in the Melbourne "Sun" Saturday Magazine about Lenny Bron, a neighbour, who went back to Germany to give evidence about a suspected Nazi. Lenny, a most genial character had been in various camps.

It was in the 1970's that the Holocaust literature began, at first in a slow manner but then almost a flood. Indeed, so much so that people began to claim sarcastically "There is no business like Shoah business." Comedians even began to tell jokes, sick jokes, about the Shoah. A dangerous thing to do which can have a backlash.

There were mini-series on TV, such as "Holocaust", books, novels, psychological works investigating the after-effects of the Holocaust, autobiographies and also the works by those claiming it never happened - that the Holocaust was a hoax. As my wife asks, "Some hoax. Where are the 63 members of the family who perished in the camps?" For a 12 year period, from the Nazis coming to power to 1945, the history of Jews was covered in an incredible manner. It still is, and I wonder whether we might be overdoing it. There was even a book about humour in the camps. Makor Library has a copy, if you are interested. It's no joke. But then again, humour has been a safety valve for Jewry since that farce in the Garden of Eden. But, to the Holocaust.

In 1984, the Melbourne Holocaust Museum opened with the aim of keeping alive the message of the Holocaust, ensuring it did not happen again and, above all, ensuring that Australia's young people, students, teachers and perhaps through them, their parents and relatives, knew what happened to six million Jewish men, women and children during World War II. Melbourne's was one of the world's first Holocaust centres. Now there are many worldwide. There is no doubt that the Centre is achieving its aims. More than 180,000 students have visited the Centre in the last 14 years. Following visits, we receive letters from them and their teachers about visits, and especially how the very personal stories of the guides, survivors who pass on their living memories have impacted on them. The letters, many of which we use in our publication "Centre News" are quite an insight into youngsters' feelings and particularly how the Holocaust's message in combating racism, prejudice and man's inhumanity to man, woman and child is really getting through. I feel the Centre has contributed to results in a finding about what Australians know about the Holocaust.

A survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs, carried out by Irving Saulwick and Associates, examined knowledge about the Holocaust, the issue of Holocaust denial and perceptions of the lessons and implications of the Holocaust.

"Most of the questions asked in the Australian survey were identical to those asked in earlier polls, thus making it possible to compare responses systematically across the different countries.

In conducting the survey, Irving Saulwick and Associates interviewed 1,010 respondents by telephone during 14-15 June 1994. Those interviewed constitute a representative national sample of Australian men and women, eighteen years and older. The findings can be reported for the sample as a whole, as well as by (among others) education, age, area of residence and sex. The estimated sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus three percentage points.

Key findings of the survey include the following:

* Knowledge of the Holocaust is widespread among Australians, as measured by responses to a number of basic questions. Australians know far more about the Holocaust than Americans.

* Australians tend to be as well-informed as the French and more knowledgeable than the British, but less knowledgeable than Germans.

Australians and Americans are about equally likely to reject the idea that the Holocaust never happened. Thus, when asked "Does it seem possible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened, or do you feel certain that it did?" 93% of Australians and 91% of Americans say they feel certain that the Holocaust happened."

The Melbourne Holocaust Centre's very active Education Department is giving a great deal of thought to the aims and the implementation of its education program for schools into the 21st century.

Ilona Oppenheimer, head of the Education Department at the Centre, has established an excellent committee to look into and carry out this policy. She says:

"What changes do we need to make to ensure that the message is relevant to all students? How do we make changes without losing the essence of our original aims? How do we ensure that our survivors' experiences are told with authenticity and impact in years to come?

With Professor Andrew Markus as chairman of the committee, representatives of survivors and a range of schools and institutions have reflected on these questions, discussed a range of issues relating to them, and have formulated a set of aims.

We aim to inspire people to speak out, stand up and act against racism, prejudice, discrimination and unfairness. In this partnership we can all work together for a more just society. In the words of educationalist and author Chaim Ginnot - "Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane," she said.

During the recent temporary "Regeneration" exhibition at the Holocaust Centre, second and third generation perspectives were presented to school groups by a few of the new guides. This was the first time that the Education program provided school students with the opportunity of hearing from people other than survivors about the impact of the Holocaust on their own families and successive generations.

We are very fortunate to have a dedicated new group of Second Generation guides who are very aware that our greatest resource is in fact our survivor guides. These new guides have found the sessions with small groups of survivors who relate their experiences to be invaluable. These interactions are providing opportunities for the first and second generation guides to develop a bond between them.

Our task is becoming more important as the gap between the present and the years of the Holocaust grows. What has the world learnt since the Holocaust? How effective can our message be? The challenge has always been with us, but as the numbers of survivors decreases, our task will become more difficult and pertinent."

All these things and how the Holocaust will be perceived in the 21st century will, of course, be influenced by our ever-occurring miracles of communication - the era of exploding communications, not least of all on the Internet. And, remember, the Internet and other miracles, will be as available to the hate mongers, the deniers and anti-Semites as to anyone else.

Civilisation cannot afford to not remember Hitler or the message of those 12 years that shook Germany and the world, at a cost of so many millions of men, women and children. More pertinent than ever with today's "ethnic cleansing" and hatreds worldwide, a fragile peace in some ways.

As the survivor generation dies out, how will the generations, including the writers, the painters, the educators, the psychologists and the so-called ordinary people, see the Holocaust, write about it, paint its canvasses and interpret the Holocaust. Or, will it fade into history as something that happened last century, one of the seminal events in Jewish history, like the Exodus, Abraham's covenant with God and so on? Indeed, what will be its place in history? The Jewish people, who have always remembered, is not about to forget its near extinction, but what of the non-Jewish communities, the artists with their 21st century miracles for good and evil, we don't even know about.

Back to the Stories Index