Holocaust should not be trivialized

By Leonard Pitts

Dear Ariana Schanzer:

I hope you won’t mind being called out like this. It’s just that I saw your picture last week in The Miami Herald and it made me want to talk to you. In the photo, you’re smiling a giddy smile, dancing cheek to cheek with this equally delighted older man who looks to be about 60 but who is, the caption tells us, actually 90 years old. Which makes your grandfather, Samuel Schanzer, exactly 80 years older than you.

It would have been a touching image under any circumstances, but the thing that made it stand out for me is that it was taken at a reunion of Holocaust survivors. It occurred to me, Ariana, that you are a blessing your grandfather would have found too absurdly wonderful to hope for back when he was young and the world was burning down around him. You are a miracle he would not have known how to dream.

I’m certain he understands how lucky he is. I’m hoping that you, even at your tender age, understand, too. And that you will cherish the gift of these years you have with him.

Not just because he is your grandfather, but also because it is important that his story survives him and is passed to generations not yet born.

I’m concerned about what has become of the Holocaust in recent years, Ariana. It’s not just the people who deny it ever happened that I refer to, though heaven knows that bunch is scary enough. To the degree anyone can erode the hard edge of historical certainty, to the degree the Holocaust can be made a “ controversy,” they spit on ashes and bones and make themselves thieves of legacy.

Still, I think the clearer and more present danger isn’t those who deny the Holocaust but, rather, those who trivialize it, who make it a thing undeserving of our reverence. I’m thinking of the people who opened a disco a few years ago near — or possibly in — one of the outbuildings of Auschwitz. And of a painting that made headlines in 2002 because it depicts a man standing among a bunch of death-camp Jews holding up a can of Diet Coke. And of a cartoon a student magazine ran last year. It showed a bearded man sitting on the edge of an open kitchen stove. The caption read, “ Knock a Jew In The Oven! Three Throws For a Dollar.” The headline said, “ Holocaust Remembrance Week.”

And I’m thinking of the people who say they don’t care about the Holocaust because it happened to other people in other places at another time.

We have these delusions about history, Ariana. We tend to regard it as a closed book. We like to insulate ourselves from its atrocities and injustices, to say that, yes, those were awful things, but they were done by unenlightened people in an unenlightened era, so they have nothing to do with us, here, now. Slavery, lynchings, the mass murder of people whose only offense is difference … these things could never happen again, we say.

But Ariana, that’s foolish. Did you know there is slavery right now, this minute, in Mali? Did you know a man was lynched in Texas seven years ago because he was black? And mass murder has never left us. In just the last few years, we have seen it in Rwanda, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Sudan — people still killing for the offense of difference.

So we owe it to your grandfather — and mine — to stand in the gap for them, to tell their stories when they no longer can. And to shatter the self-satisfied smugness that allows some of us to believe the past is finished business. As a writer named William Faulkner once pointed out, the past isn’t even past.

Remember that when people try to make the Holocaust abstract, Ariana. Remember, when they try to make it absurd. Remember the warmth of your grandfather’s cheek against yours, remember how small your hand was in his.
Remember, and pass it on.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com