Lesson Objectives: As a result of this lesson, students will:
Key Glossary Terms: The following glossary terms are used in Lesson 1.
Video “The Destruction of Families” (10:08)
Suggestions for discussion: Jewish life in European towns such as the one shown on the videotape revolved around large, loving families. Comments about the “wonderful” life before the war indicate their lives were secure and peaceful. Family security and community closeness were the hallmarks of that culture. As one man puts it, “It was happiness.”2. What did the people on the tape mean by the word “unbelievable”?
Suggestions for discussion: Many survivors echo the comments of those on the videotape: even though they were there and lived through it, the Holocaust seems “unbelievable.” Part of the reason for this attitude stems from the sudden, traumatic change from the gentle world of their families and communities to the drastically different “concentration camp universe.”
Two types of explanation might account for this. First, the carefully organized, bureaucratic annihilation of an entire people was quite literally beyond belief before the Holocaust. Even the Nazis did not imagine such a plan until 1940 or 1941. Jews had experienced violence before – pogroms, massacres, semi-official anti-Semitic attacks carried out by police – but nothing on the scale of the Holocaust.
For those who lived through the Holocaust, the boundaries of reality were set in the 1920s and 1930s, a time much more innocent than the world after 1945. Even now, those boundaries that shaped their view of the world, determine what is and is not believable. Yet, the unbelievable happened and many think about that history with marked ambivalence, having experienced the event yet still seeing it as beyond belief. It was, wrote one scholar, “the first time in history that events outstripped the imagination.”
The second type of explanation can be heard in comments like, “I still don’t believe it happened,” or from the statements of the woman who tells of seeing the fire each day but refusing to believe that her family had died there. She “couldn’t imagine” what was happening could be true. These are forms of “denial,” the refusal to believe that something so terrible had befallen loved ones.
There is little that we find unbelievable today (thus the frequent use of the word applied to even the most trivial things). Because it happened, because we believe it, and because we believe the countless atrocities that have happened since, the Holocaust may serve as a warning for the future. As one author has noted: “The fact that it happened is the most persuasive deterrent for its ever happening again . . . to prevent the death of any further innocents.”3. What do you think was the most difficult problem these survivors had to confront after the war?
Suggestions for discussion: Most survivors do not dwell on what they suffered physically but on the terrible loss of entire families – parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins. Almost every one can remember the names of upward of 40 family members who perished. This does not include, of course, the loss of friends, teachers, rabbis, whole communities and an entire way of life. They are haunted, to a great extent, by the experience of being totally alone, without a home, family, community or life in context in which to place themselves. The man on the tape, for example, still fantasizes abut returning home, sitting at his table and telling his story to his brother or to his parents – even though he knows they were murdered. He cannot reminisce about his life before because there is no one who shared it with him, who remembers his mother’s voice, his sister’s laugh, the schoolroom, the teachers, the pranks or the celebrations on holidays.
Each survivor on the tape was suddenly alone after the war. Many felt “condemned to survive.” The loneliness was nearly unbearable and some contemplated suicide, some abandoned their religion for a time, some lapsed into silence and some became bitter and angry.
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