The traditional, reverent ways to “never forget” what happened to six million Jews during the Holocaust are still very much with us. Seventy years after the event, Holocaust museums have recently opened in Los Angeles and the Chicago suburb of Skokie, and even a city like Richmond, Va., with about 8,000 Jews, has one.
Public school curricula feature units on the Holocaust, trips to Shoah museums and visits by survivors themselves. And thousands of Jewish students still go on the March of the Living tour, which ferries them from the ashes of Auschwitz to the light of the State of Israel.
But as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, nears this year, observers are debating the uses of irreverence to memorialize the event, especially when it comes to passing the lessons of the Shoah on to a younger, Facebook generation. After years of Holocaust farces like Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway play “The Producers,” Holocaust comedy films like Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” after Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” and art shows depicting Zyklon B canisters alongside Coke cans, irreverence, when it comes to the Holocaust, is now the classic “teachable moment.”
And in our medium-is-the-message world, the graphic novel (comic book, to an older generation) may end up being the vehicle to carry the memory of the Holocaust to younger people.
Will it all breed in young people a disrespect that is harmful to the cause of Holocaust memorialization, or is such irreverence only inevitable in this post-Holocaust age?
“Only survivors are entitled to have irreverence and irony about the crimes of the Shoah,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who leads an educational initiative for teenage Jewish boys at the Philadelphia-based Moving Traditions organization. But he added, “There are irreverent examples of Holocaust-themed material that are ripe for educators.” Rabbi Brenner cited “scenes from ‘South Park’s ‘Death Camp of Tolerance’” — a 2002 episode on the Comedy Central adult cartoon show that mocked knee-jerk liberalism. “It presents a biting commentary on how we have dumbed down ‘lessons’ from the Holocaust,” he said.
At least, if the Holocaust is becoming an object of less-than-sacrosanct depiction, it is still treated as an undisputed historical fact.
“The bigger problem now is that a significant amount of the population doesn’t even believe the Holocaust happened,” said Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media studies at The New School and author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism” (Crown, 2003). “I am delighted to see the Nazis as bad guys in movies and comics, because at least it means we recognize them as the extreme evil that humans are capable of.”
In 2011, the Holocaust has largely entered the public domain, no longer exclusively Jewish property; in a variety of political and social confrontations, as claims of “Gestapo tactics” and “Nuremberg cross-examinations” are frequently heard. And even the Anti-Defamation League has downgraded the swastika, long a uniquely anti-Semitic symbol, into a universal sign of hatred.
It’s no wonder then that irreverence and a certain ironic distance about the Holocaust have come to characterize its consumption by younger people.
“As we move further from the Holocaust, and because of technology and diminished institutional authority, the ways the Holocaust will be remembered and used will run the gamut from respectful [to] disrespectful, sacred [to] profane,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “This is the inevitable consequence of the ever-increasing freedom people have to make meaning of the historical events that are explosive with meanings … and whose meaning has been perceived as controlled and used for purposes both holy and less than holy,” Rabbi Kula continued.
“For those of us who grew up in America with the word ‘Hitler’ having a meaning as fixed as that of a black hole and the epithet ‘Hitler’ being used only by sloppy teenagers and overheated ideologues, this slippery appropriation of Hitler’s image for satirical purposes can be hard to take,” Virginia Heffernan wrote in a 2008 New York Times magazine essay about videos parodying the German leader that were the rage on YouTube.
The casual use of Nazi imagery is “ignorance,” not anti-Semitism or neo-Nazi leanings, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a hidden child survivor of the Holocaust. “Memory fades,” he said. To many people, especially those born decades after World War II, Hitler “could be Genghis Khan.”
In other words, recent history has become ancient history. And while the spirit of irreverence is undoubtedly offensive to survivors and their descendants, mainstream Jewish organizations should think twice before they condemn these examples that spread in such places as YouTube or other websites, Rabbi Kula said. “The more they fight alternative meanings, the stronger and more viral those meanings will grow.”
Think Ben Greenman’s “My Holocaust Memoir” last year in The New Yorker, a putative letter to Oprah Winfrey that states: “I was born in Chicago in 1969. Shortly afterward, in 1941, my entire family was rounded up by the authorities and sent to the Theresienstadt camp.” Its blatantly specious tone may be a better vehicle for reaching younger generations than standard memoirs, the experts say.
In the western Poland city of Poznan, down the street from a synagogue that was turned into a municipal swimming pool during the Nazi occupation and still serves as a symbol of Jewish losses, an avant-garde art gallery hung a large poster that featured a swastika behind Mickey Mouse’s face superimposed on a woman’s nude body. The poster, which caused a stir last year in the industrial city 100 miles from the German border, offers a unique perspective on the proprieties of Holocaust memory.
The city’s small Jewish community was upset when the poster appeared, advertising an art exhibit sponsored by the newly opened Abnormals Gallery. The posters in the exhibition dealt with torture, commercialization and other contemporary topics, but the large Mickey Mouse/swastika poster was chosen to represent the collection because it was the most provocative, said Roman Nowak, the gallery’s director.
“We were expecting very strong reactions from Poles,” from the general, non-Jewish public, Nowak said. About three million non-Jewish Poles — mostly Catholics — died at the hands of the Nazis, a much smaller percentage of their total population, of course, than the three million Polish Jews who died in the Shoah.
However, said Feliks Tych, director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, “The swastika is an anti-Polish symbol.”
Nowak said he was surprised by the intensity of Jewish criticism, and would better explain the exhibition’s purpose were he to mount it today.
In the case of graphic novels, though many are serious, the medium is the disputed message.
The so-called Holocaust comic books — inspired by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 book “Maus,” which depicted Jews and Germans and Poles as various animals — may be a better pedagogic tool than columns of text in history books.
“Graphic novels on Holocaust themes, like other novels on Holocaust themes, are an excellent complement to reading the primary source texts and viewing photographs of the Shoah,” Rabbi Brenner said. “In the past two decades, as graphic novels have evolved as an artistic medium and attained critical acclaim, they have become one of the media with which younger generations grasp the inner struggles of characters and the sanctity of life.”
One recent example: the “Episodes from Auschwitz” series, that first appeared in Poland in 2009, with a storyline about pathos and tragedy, romance and heroism.
“Our goal is to spread knowledge and awaken interest,” artist Beate Klos, one of the comic book’s creators, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview.
“Historical research publications, that are essential on comprehending this [Holocaust] history, are often not enough and don’t appeal to young readers. We think that a comic book that is professionally created by an experienced and creative writer, with appropriately done graphics and in an educational way, has an unusually good chance of reaching the modern reader — someone who represents the ‘image’ generation, not the ‘word’ generation.”
“I do not think that the genre necessarily trivializes the Holocaust just because it is essentially another form of comic book,” said Henry Gonshak, a professor of liberal studies at the University of Montana’s Montana Tech division, who has extensively researched the topic.
“The whole technique also affords a fresh angle on the Holocaust, which is very necessary at a time when the flood of Holocaust imagery in our culture risks numbing the public to the genocide.”
But Rafael Medoff, director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, believes graphic novels “like all other forms of media, can go either way.”
“If they are done badly, they become part of the problem,” he added. “If done responsibly, they can be a powerfully effective tool for Holocaust education.”
Even the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, among the most influential protectors of Holocaust memory, which served as a resource for the production of “Episodes from Auschwitz,” is retooling its own educational offerings, gearing its message to a younger generation.
“Changes are something inevitable in the dynamics of the world we are living in today,” Klos said. “We live fast, and people tend to be more preoccupied with today as well as things that directly influence their life, while not looking into the past.”