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As a 12-year-old in the summer of 1965, I went to Soviet-Bloc era Warsaw with my parents and brother. It was 20 years after the end of World War II. I saw a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in front of “a patch of hilly land with two trees,” as I described it in my trip diary from the time. “Today nothing much that was exciting happened, and mainly because there isn’t much old stuff to see because it was reduced to rubble”—I spelled it “rubel”—“in World War II.”
The exhibits at what I described as a “Jewish Museum” spared nothing. “Every picture was grimmer than the one before, showing the bones and the people with stars on their chests. We came out as sober as if we were going from a funeral.”
These memories resurfaced as I reported and wrote Moment’s recent feature on Holocaust education. The educators who built the original curricula had their own individual stories of how they became aware of the enormity of Nazi crimes against humanity. One had Holocaust-survivor parents who never told him much about what they had endured. Another recalled survivors speaking through drawn shades when he knocked on their doors to collect money for newspapers delivered. When they finally answered, he wondered why they had tattooed numbers on their arms. A third knew little about the Holocaust other than through reading Exodus, the 1958 bestseller by Leon Uris.
The trip to Warsaw (and also Prague and Budapest) might have been my own comparable wake-up call. But growing up on New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was more like current events than history. It was commonplace in warm weather to see people walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side with tattooed numbers on their arms. Places like Tip Toe Inn, Schrafft’s and Barney Greengrass catered to the refugees as a distinct subset of the overall Jewish population. Issac Bashevis Singer, who masterfully recounted Jewish life in Warsaw before the war, was a habitué of the Sterling Cafeteria at 85th Street and Broadway.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that if Hitler had won the war, my family would not exist. That made it all the easier to obsess over the allied victory in World War II. My father had been an Army doctor but never went overseas. The men of my parents’ social circle had been bombers pilots and artillery officers, and one nearly drowned in the 1944 invasion of Anzio in Italy. On June 6, 1964, the 20th anniversary of D-Day, I made a point of seeing a replay of The Longest Day at a local theater.
I had seen the grainy Army Signal Corps footage of the liberation of concentration camps in 1945. I had read William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary and chunks of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I had watched Judgment at Nuremberg and The Pawnbroker. I knew the names of the camps, the underlying Nazi rationale based on twisted distortions of Jews and their unique history.
I didn’t go back to Poland until 1993, when I was among the Washington-based reporters who accompanied then FBI Director Louis Freeh on a first-ever tour of Eastern Europe. Freeh’s main point to his counterparts was that the evils of totalitarianism can happen only if law enforcement ignores its Constitutional oath and starts following orders of dictators. Exhibit A was German police obedience to stand down and let Nazi thugs destroy Jewish businesses and beat Jews at random on Kristallnacht in 1938. Along with Freeh, we visited Auschwitz. And I had tears in my eyes when Freeh recounted the story of a father holding his young son and pointing up at the sky as a Nazi SS einsatzgruppen prepared to shoot them down. My own two boys were 10 and 5 at the time.
In writing the Holocaust education story for Moment, I came to realize how much I thought I knew but didn’t. The facts and implications of the Holocaust need to be taught in school, but adults also need to remain vigilant—and never assume they’ll be equipped to fight racism, intolerance and hate whenever it arises. A common refrain among Holocaust-education practitioners is the goal of turning “bystanders” into “upstanders.” I think we all need to follow that path.