Dear Mr. Spicer,
Your recent, much-decried comments about Hitler made me think about why I bring high school students to visit death camps (not “Holocaust centers”) every year, and how I explain to my three young children why I spend a week away in a country called Poland.
In small pieces over their 5 and 8 years, my two older kids have come to understand that while we live safe, free, happy lives as Jews in America, this hasn’t always been true for all Jews, including their maternal grandparents. They don’t yet know and wouldn’t appreciate the number six million and I hope it is years before they hear terms like gas chambers or learn about the einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads that murdered entire Jewish communities). What my kids understand now is that during the Holocaust many Jews died simply for being Jews, but that was a long time ago, the world isn’t like that anymore, and for now, I am fine with that.
What my kids don’t understand is why I have to go to the place where all of that happened, and if it’s safe for me, why I wouldn’t want them to come along? I lead a trip for my students every year, and every other summer for adults, so I have gotten this question more than a few times.
Sean, my answer goes something like this:
You know how sometimes there are things you have experienced, like how chocolate tastes, or how fun our trip to Legoland was, that are tough to explain to someone who has never tasted chocolate, or never been to Legoland? It’s kind of like that, but in reverse–it’s very sad to go to some of these places in Poland, and it’s tough to explain that sadness to other people or for them to understand these sad places, if they haven’t been there themselves.
Not only that, I explain to my kids, but it’s also very important to make sure that people do understand what happened at these faraway places, because the better my students understand what happened there, the more they can do their best to make sure nothing like that ever happens again, to anyone, in this country or another. My kids cry, and I usually cry too, but I go every year, and I think they understand that whatever it is I am doing, it is truly important.
Admittedly, what I’m telling them now is a huge oversimplification, but the core message I give my young children is what I truly believe. Most people will never visit Auschwitz or the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, let alone more isolated spots like Sobibor, or the silent mass graves outside cities and villages like Tarnow or Tykocin. But the more my young students can experience those places, and understand with great depth what happened there and how, the better they can help those many people who will never visit to understand not only that the Holocaust happened, but how.
Sean Spicer, I don’t think you’re an anti-Semite, and I don’t think you are a Holocaust denier. But ignorance can be as dangerous as evil intentions, sometimes. I think that you, like many people today, don’t understand how the Shoah (Holocaust) truly worked. I don’t think you understand that German Jews were fully German citizens before the Nazis turned on them, and that some were in fact gassed, while others were worked to death and murdered in a variety of ways. I doubt most people understand how the gas chambers at a Death Camp like Auschwitz were constructed, or how they operated. That’s why helping my students understand all of that, and much more about Jewish life before and since, is why it is so important to make the trip.
So, Sean Spicer, if by any chance you read Kveller–please join me next time. There may be a lot you don’t know and understand about the Shoah, but you will know it and understand it a lot better by visiting the sites themselves and studying them in context.
And to my kids, I have to say, I am so grateful for your love and understanding, and as you grow up, I hope you understand even better that going every year to Auschwitz is my small way of making sure the wonderful lives you lead in the present, never become like the sad times in our past.