I’ve spoken and written a lot about hopes and fears regarding what will happen once the survivors are gone. I’ve talked about intentional distortion both for purposes of denial and to support a specific agenda (to emphasize Polish heroism, for example, or Polish misdeeds on the other hand). I’ve talked about laziness, forgetting, honest mistakes, overgeneralization, the inability to include the idiosyncratic in our picture of the Holocaust (ex.: My mother’s family had a German Shepherd named Dana as a pet. Dana saved my grandmother’s life during the war). I’ve talked about the forgetting or blunting of the edges that happens over time—pictures lose their clarity the farther away we get from when an event occurred. But one thing maybe I have not spent enough time on is plain old apathy.
I came across apathy this week when a young person was visiting us here at Brama Grodzka in Lublin the city of my mother’s birth where I am spending several months on a fellowship. The young man was pleasant and bright and collegial. He was present physically for tours and interviews. He went to Auschwitz with the most expert guide. He was in the room when person after person talked about their passion to preserve Jewish memory, but he didn’t get it. He wasn’t listening. He was on his phone or pre-occupied with this or that snafu in his travel plans and he didn’t listen, so he didn’t get it. So, when we standing inside the memorial at the Umschlagplatz in Lublin, the place where 28,000 of Lublin’s 43,000 Jews were gathered before being put on trains to be gassed at Bełzec, among them probably my grandmother’s siblings and their children, he took a phone call. And I felt…
What did I feel? Was I angry? Angry that he did not care enough to listen? I’m not sure what the point of anger would be. Was I sad? I think so. I think I am sad that the death of so many, of the entire community of my mother’s childhood, didn’t move another human being enough to pay attention. What would move this young man?
I wondered whose fault his apathy was. Was it his? His parents’ for spoiling him? His genes? Was it “technology’s” fault? Perhaps it was our fault—mine and Brama Grodzka’s, and his guides, for not being good enough teachers. Usually I feel we are very good teachers—I can’t speak for myself, but these people are the best in Poland at what they do— and that we communicate our message clearly, but maybe different methods will be needed to reach future generations, to get them to unplug and listen. Do we need to plug in too and reach them where they are? I don’t want that to be necessary. I want to be able to reach a person’s heart and soul with words and by looking into his eyes, and telling an authentic story, and not think it must be through the latest app.
I don’t want to indict a whole generation based on one person. (I don’t even want to indict this person; it’s not for me to judge). I’ve seen plenty of young people be moved by this history. But the detachment that I witnessed this week was sobering and made me sad for a future where, on the road to Holocaust remembrance we will be confronting an enemy named disinterest.