Hitler On The 7 Train

Hitler On The 7 Train

I am having one of those months when I feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up, especially when it comes to blogging.

For the past two weeks I have been meaning to blog about Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was on Monday. And now, I realize Mother’s Day is upon us. And Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day, aka the Nakba for those who prefer the Palestinian narrative of things.) Not to mention, my children are feverishly planning their birthday parties for this summer. (No Israel themes this year; Sophie, who will turn 5, wants an ice-skating party, and Ellie, who will turn 8, wants a book/creative writing theme.)

Of course I don’t have to blog about every holiday, and no offense, but Lag b’Omer won’t get much attention here.

But some holidays do call out to me, especially Yom HaShoah since, for better or worse, an obsession with Hitler and the Holocaust was an early facet of my Jewish identity. Starting at age 8 or so, I read every young-adult book (including this one and this one) I could find about Jewish families hiding and fleeing during the Holocaust, and I routinely pored through all the relevant entries in my then-10-years-out-of-date World Book Encyclopedia. Fortunately for my psychological development, those volumes contained few images or explicit details from the concentration camps, and thanks to the Iron Curtain, a lot less was known at the time about the mass killings in Ukraine and Poland (best book I’ve read on that topic in particular is Daniel Mendelsohn’s "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million").

While my interest in the Holocaust never disappeared, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about the “who is a Jew” aspect: how the Nazis made no distinctions between “patrilineal” and “matrilineal,” (or indeed any of the many other distinctions and divisions within Judaism, like secular vs. religious or Zionist vs. anti-Zionist) and how, for better or worse, this is an aspect of the Jewish experience that interfaith families shared completely with in-married families.

I also have been struggling with how to explain the Shoah to my daughters, who, newly acquainted with “The Sound of Music,” have started talking about Nazis and asking all sorts of questions.

A few weeks ago, while we were riding the 7 train ( a ride Hitler no doubt would have found revolting, with every sort of non-Aryan imaginable filling the seats of our subway car) we were discussing “The Sound of Music.” Ellie loudly and to my utter horror said, “Heil Hitler,” prompting a big discussion about just how taboo and offensive this phrase is, how even though she was just quoting the Nazi characters and not speaking as a believer, she should never utter those words in public.

Perhaps curious to see how I’d react, a few days later, in the safety of our living room, Sophie said “Heil Hitler,” prompting another discussion about how Hitler was one of the most evil people in the history of the world, that he particularly hated Jews and that he killed a lot of people.

I didn’t go into detail, and fortunately they didn’t press for details. I tried to shift the focus to the good people who helped hide and rescue Jews.
It reminded me, especially what with the Bin Laden news of last week (which I didn’t share with the kids), of a discussion I had with Ellie last year about 9/11.

That conversation was also on the 7 train, prompted by an ad offering help for people experiencing health problems related to 9/11. Thankfully, Sophie wasn’t on that subway ride. I tried to keep all my answers vague, and Ellie kept pressing for details, until I had to explain a lot of the story: the two planes deliberately crashed into the twin towers. I didn’t mention the planes that crashed at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, or that there were multiple hijackers.

“Why would anyone want to do that?” she asked, just like her “But why did they hate Jews?” when I told her about the Nazis, and when we watched “Fiddler on the Roof.”

To which all I really can say is, “I don’t know.”

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