In September there was an event hosted by my campus Hillel on the Holocaust and its implications. I have been a part of these conversations for many years, but this time I felt uncomfortable and awkward in that tiny windowless conference room.
Afterwards, I realized it was due to the fact that my own family had no direct connection to the Holocaust.
Most of the people in the room were related to people who directly suffered during that horrific time or had a living grandparent who was a Holocaust survivor. I made it clear, in the middle of the conversation, that my family lived in Jamaica, and that we had never faced the fear of Nazi deportation. Then I wondered, “Why couldn’t my grandparents have been Holocaust survivors and be the honored speakers at these events?”
I immediately mentally slapped myself.
How could I think like this? I realized Holocaust survivor descendants almost always come off as inspiring and proud, and that day, during that Hillel event, I also wanted to join the club. But I will never qualify.
I came back from the event emotionally and mentally strained from the cognitive dissonance, and I reported to my friends a new term that I would now use with reference to how I view Holocaust memory keepers, and especially their descendants: having “Holocaust Privilege.”
My friends all laughed except the two who got it.
Once you are a part of the Survivor Descendant Club, you have privilege and perks-ascribed status in the community. The opinions of the descendants have often taken on a far more important place than even an actual survivor’s message. As the latter die, the Survivor Descendant Club is taking over their role as memory keepers.
In my last year of high school, the graduating class took an amazing trip to Europe and during that trip we went to Auschwitz. On the day of that visit, some friends and I at lunchtime made bets on whether a particular classmate of ours would cry obnoxiously. She was also Jewish and had lost members of her family in the Holocaust and we were accustomed, each year, to an outburst of crying that would take four or five people to comfort her whenever discussions of the Holocaust were mentioned or movies were shown.
The trip to Auschwitz was no different, and she burst to tears requiring, as per usual, a large group to comfort her. Her outburst and all the attention she received–while my Jewish identification was ignored–wounded me.
Later on, when she was mentioned at dinner, my wounds were still fresh and I declared, “She is Jewish and lost family members, I am Jewish as well! Don’t you expect me to get upset and cry uncontrollably too?”
The group responded: “You’re different Tyler, she’s just seeking attention.”
Three years later that entire situation still haunts me. What did they mean by “You’re different?”
Was it like other situations when I have been told that I can’t be connected or feel anything about the Holocaust because my family did not personally experience it? Those words have been said to me by both gentiles and members of the Survivor Descendant Club.
Factually, they are correct. I do not have an immediate connection to the Holocaust in the sense of personal family loss but, I have an emotional and personal connection to it because six million of my people were slaughtered. All Jews are connected to it, even those whose families where never directly affected by it, but our trauma is discounted and we have no access to “Holocaust privilege” as a result. We do, nevertheless, deal with this over hanging vulture that never flies away.
This sense of alienation comes to us within our own peoplehood through another vantage point, too, one where the Holocaust is the largest, and many times only, story of Jewish tragedy that is told. A Yemenite Jew told an Ashkenazi friend of mine, “Yes, the European Holocaust is tragic, and we share this pain with our people. But it is not the story for all Jews, it is not our story”.
The many other stories of near destruction of the Jewish people go unacknowledged because we have them lumped in one day,Tisha b’Av, meanwhile for the holocaust we have Yom HaShoah and the various holocaust remembrances in November in Canada.
We even see this in the films that are made about the Holocaust, the overwhelming desire to tell the tales of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. But what about the Roma, the gays, the blacks, the Jehovah’s witnesses, Catholic dissenters and political prisoners? We never see a Holocaust film from the non-Jewish experience–except Sophie`s Choice which experienced backlash when the book and later the movie were released.
The breaking point for me in my relationship with the Holocaust came a few months later when we students began to plan our “Jewish Education Week” and the Holocaust survivor that was suggested, and whom I wanted, was Suzanne Weiss.
There was immediate resistance.
“Suzanne is pro-Palestinian…”
“Here is a list of Holocaust survivors that are so much better.”
“Suzanne did not go through the camps, she was hidden away.”
During that conversation I felt so disgusted, so immoral, and so dirty, because for nearly two hours we debated because a Holocaust survivor did not show the same political views of the majority, and even called into question the experience she went through being a Jewish child of the Holocaust.
This is what I call the Survivor Commodity Market or SCM. We commodify their experience, look at the biographies of survivors, potential speakers, list their benefits and negatives. Then ultimately we determine if they are speaker-worthy and then we bring them in to meet OUR needs to hear and reinforce how damaging the Holocaust was to the Jewish people. This has echoes of a kind of slave auction in 18th century America. And while we justify ourselves with the excuse that we want to hear the survivors who’ve been through the camps before they all die of old age, we fail to take care of them when Holocaust remembrance days and Yom HaShoah are over for the year.
In early January, several weeks before Jewish Education Week took place, I had the pleasure of meeting Miriam Perkell. She survived Auschwitz, Dachau, Leipzig, and then survived a gas chamber. She later went on to Israel and joined the Israeli Air Force helping with management and construction.
Throughout her talk I felt so amazed and wonderstruck, yet afterwards I felt awful.
She had given me her address and phone number to visit her and I was left wondering why? Perhaps she is lonely or suffering?
The address and phone number I had safeguarded to visit her one day is now lost. Each day I attempt to find this small paper and have no luck. Ultimately, this is how we treat our survivors.
We demand from them their stories from the Holocaust, but we never get to know the person beyond this painful part of their past. We never get to hear the incredible lives they’ve crafted. We are only focused on one part that doesn’t necessary reflect their resilience and the fullness of life they pieced together from their pain. Right now I’m thinking of Miriam and I feel so guilty, because one day she will die and I already got so distracted that I forgot about her. I’m ashamed that I cherish and save her contact information relinquishing her value to just another wonderful Holocaust survivor who came to speak.
How different is our commodification of this generation of survivors from the objects that the Nazis made them out to be?
Tyler Samuels is a liberal traditionalist Sephardic Jew, Political Science/History student at the University of Toronto and religious director of the University of Toronto Scarborough Jew Student Life. Also a small time writer and poet, Tyler runs his blog Bipolar Reb (https://bipolarreb.wordpress.com/) that mixes Judaism, politics and mental illness.