Posted by: 4initalia | August 1, 2009


Growing up, I watched the 60s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. Sitcom Nazis were bumbling fools easily defeated by the intelligence and charm of the Americans. My dad had books about the Third Reich, so when I was seven, I saw photos of
Jewish families, dressed in wool and clutching suitcases, herded onto cattle cars that took them to concentration camps. Other photos showed what happened there, hills of bodies with rubber limbs, shaved heads, and gaping mouths: a diorama of the Silent Scream. How could I laugh at Colonel Klink?

In school I read Anne Frank’s diary, and learned later that in the camps, Nazis killed six million Jews, and twelve million people in all. As I got older, the violence of the Nazis became personal: I read about an SS officer who grabbed a baby from his mother’s arms, stabbed him with a bayonet, and ripped him in half. When I had a baby of my own, his heft in my arms made me think of that child, and his mother. After I had children, I couldn’t read about the Holocaust: I loved too much.

But my children, who are seven and thirteen, are old enough to know what the Nazis did. Not the way I learned, from Hogan’s Heroes and photographs in books. We’re living in Europe, where the people were herded onto trains, where the suitcases were carried and the photographs were taken. How will I teach my children about the Holocaust? In small pieces that connect to a big idea.

While in Amsterdam, we visited Anne Frank’s hiding place. The faded wall paper has gone sepia with age, and holds the ache of smothered youth and stolen lives. For two years, eight people, including three teenagers, lived in those rooms, a fragile shell suspended just out of reach of the Nazis.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father, cut from a newspaper a small map of the Normandy invasion, taped it to the wall, and followed the advance of the Allies with tiny blue and red pins. So much hope was pinned to those walls, but liberation came too late for Anne and her family; they were arrested and herded onto cattle cars, and everyone but Otto died in the camps.

My kids saw the diary, read Anne’s name on the list of Jews on the last train to Auchwitz. Anne Frank’s real name was Annelies: my daughter’s name. Annalise connected with the young girl who adored her father and clashed with her mother. “She shouldn’t have had to die.”

After seeing the house, I re-read Anne’s diary, and my horror deepened into anger. At not only the Nazis, but Germans. The systematic annihilation of a people isn’t accomplished only by men with bayonets. The death of twelve million people was aided by civilians who watched trains pass. Trains stuffed with families deprived of food, water, even air, as they rode to the camps. The Nazis were aided by ordinary people who kept the machine of death in motion. And those ordinary people were Germans. Germans watched their government seize Poland, Italy, France, drop bombs on Westminster Abbey and London train stations full of people just like them. When the Germans retreated from Florence, they blew up every ancient bridge in the city, leaving only the Ponte Vecchio. They killed children, they smothered hope, they shattered history.

When we visited Poland, we saw the Krakow Ghetto. Before the ghetto was liquidated, it held 4 families per flat, crushed behind a wall made of cement panels shaped like Jewish gravestones. We saw the factory where Oscar Schindler kept 1200 workers safe.

Nazis killed Jews and anyone who resisted them. Anne Frank wrote that in Amsterdam, for every act of sabotage, German soldiers grabbed ten people off the street, and shot them.

In Polish cities like Warsaw and Krakow, nondescript buildings sprout gray plaques every few blocks. The plaques commenerate the deaths of Polish citizens shot by the Nazis. They’re everywhere. “On this site 50 Polish Citizens were killed by Nazis.” With every memorial, my anger at Germany, at Germans, grew. During the war, many of Poland’s cities were completely destroyed. After the war, Warsaw was 90% rubble, Gdansk was 75% destroyed. Because of a war started and stoked by Germany.

And so when we met Andy’s Polish relatives, who were too young to have survived the war, but who grew up passing grim gray plaques, I wanted to know: “Are you angry at the Germans?” I was suprised by the answer. “It was sixty years ago, the people who did those terrible things are dead.” Many Italians said the same thing: the people responsible died long ago.

But for Poland, the war and its aftermath were more complicated than for Western Europe. Alicja, a Polish social worker in her early thirties, explained to me that World War II started in the city of Gdansk, when German sailors fired on Polish soldiers. But Germany had always considered Gdansk German territory; the Germans were taking back their own land. The Germans held Gdansk, but didn’t destroy it, because Germany considered Gdansk a German city.

Western Europe was freed of Nazi occupation by the US and Great Britain, but Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union. So during the German occupation, Gdansk was left intact. Gdansk wasn’t destroyed until the Russians invaded to liberate it from the Nazis. And then the Poles were trapped, by their Soviet liberators, behind the Iron Curtain, for the next forty years.

So much for liberation. For Poles, freedom had to wait, until Lech Walesa defied Soviet rule with his Solidarity Movement. Alicja thought that the Germans had preserved the city because they valued it. but the Russians wanted only to rout the Germans, and it was because of the Russians that her home town was laid to waste. Since the war, Poles have rebuilt their cities and worked well with their German neighbors. Alicja’s anger is not for the Germans, but for the Russians. History is a lot more complicated than a Hogan’s Heroes episode.

I asked Tomas, an engineer born in Poland, what he thought about the war. Was he angry at the Germans? No. He and his mother moved to Germany when he was eleven years old. His grandfather, Edward, was a Polish soldier who was captured by the German Army. Edward could either fight for the Third Reich, or die. Edward chose to fight, and his grave bears a Nazi insignia. But because Edward fought for the Germans, Edward’s daughter was allowed to leave Soviet Poland for the freedom of Western Germany. Tomas grew up in Germany, and lives there still, a German citizen. Is he angry about the Germans? No, and I’m now appalled at the ignorance of my question.

While we waited for our train to take us out of Poland, I thought about what I learned about history. Until I talked to people who lived there, my anger was as blind and foolish as Colonel Klink.

I waited for our train. And just then, a long, low cattle train crept along the rails, a war relic still in use, a despicable, haunted thing. Its cars were the same airless boxes I had seen in my father’s books; this was the kind of train used to carry Anne Frank and her family to Auschwitz: Angry again. But at whom? At Colonel Klink, for making me laugh? At Tomas’ grandfather, whose daughter built a life without anger? Edward’s grandson taught me that history and his story can mean very different things.

How do I teach my children about the Holocaust? My son Alex has a school friend from Germany, and is appalled that I would still be angry at Germans for what happened in World War II. “That’s ridiculous – the people who did it are dead.” Why didn’t I know that?

What did Annalise learn? As we left Oscar Schindler’s factory, Annalise said “I want to do great things and help people, like that man.”

Maybe my kids should teach me about the Holocaust.


  1. Amazing. The Poles continue to live and work in schrapnel-pocked buildings, which they maintain as some sort of monument, I suppose, as they move forward. And yet America is still somehow unable to completely free itself from the legacy of slavery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: