The Holocaust and Other History: How Much Do You Know? How Much Should You Know?
I crammed to finish the short story in time, eyes glued to the pages ignoring everything around me. It was only 119 pages. I could do it. This was not a college finals week study session. I was 37 years old on my way to hear Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. I had never read his ground breaking historical account of his concentration camp experiences called, “Night.” And I was sort of ashamed.
The train pulled into New York’s Penn Station and I had 10 pages to go in the riveting memoir. But kind of like with “Titanic,” you know how it ends.
The 90 minute program sponsored by the New York Press Club (of which I am a member) provided even more insight into Mr. Wiesel’s life since his time in Auschwitz and Birkenau. But I did not take away a greater desire to connect with Israel and current politics there. What I did think about is the responsibility to learn.
As a journalist, it’s been my job to learn about any number of things, usually under deadline. Even off the clock, the quest and desire to learn is usually present. But in a semi-schizophrenic way, sometimes I just want to turn it off and it’s completely unpredictable. On my honeymoon, I tried to turn it off and literally did not power up my iPhone. But like calories not counting when eaten off someone else’s plate, I was drawn to news alerts on my husband’s Blackberry.
A journalist is also charged with being a witness to history. But Mr. Wiesel took this notion even further:
“My deep conviction is he or she who listens to a witness becomes a witness.”
Does Your Day Have 28 Hours?
There’s only so much time in the day. During the little free time we get, are we responsible for “work” of a different kind? Work in self-educating? Are we responsible for filling in the gaps left by tightly scheduled school curricula, when there’s never enough time to learn everything.
Back in 1989, AP American history, I remember whizzing through the post-World War II years because time was short and exam prep had to begin. In college, professors often skew curricula to their own areas of interest and expertise. There are so many classics to read, so many events to embrace. In 2006, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 37% of high school seniors didn’t know that a 1962 conflict between the US and the Soviet Union was over missiles in Cuba. That was considered an easy question. Only 29% could name one reason why the US got involved in Korea.
During Mr. Wiesel’s talk, he addressed an audience question recounting a 10 year old who did not know about the Holocaust. “I will not force a child,” he said. “A child must be ready for it.”
I know my knowledge of European history is lacking. Same can be said for wars in Korea and Vietnam. I read works including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath” on my own because I felt a hole in my literary knowledge.
Nothing Wrong With a Little Brain Candy
But are we allowed to turn it off? While I’ve been to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, read The Diary of Anne Frank, and experienced several first-hand accounts of survivors in years of Hebrew school, I never saw Schindler’s List. It just isn’t what I look for when I go to the movies. I don’t consider it entertainment; it’s education. And if I’ve got 4 hours for dinner and a movie on a Saturday night, maybe I just don’t want to mentally “work.” But I’m beginning to think responsibility might have to win out more often.
That sense has become stronger as I’ve sought to be educated and seen the link with responsibility. Watching “Food, Inc.” and reading David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” has changed the way I shop for food. Over time, this education will positively impact the health of my family. But I found both entertaining.
The Holocaust and other historical accounts are not meant to be entertaining. Ken Burns has made a valiant effort in making historical events such as the Civil War watchable (though many critics don’t like his treatment of still photographs).
The challenge is in finding time to balance responsibility with unadulterated recreation. A 2007 study from the Pew Research Center found that despite the boom in readily available information, between 1989 and 2007, knowledge of public affairs didn’t improve much. In fact, 5% fewer people knew the name of the Vice President. If you want to make the argument that people don’t see far beyond their noses, it doesn’t hold. Eight percent fewer people could name their own state’s governor. Despite the fact that people are more educated, knowledge has not increased accordingly.
I think it’s a combination of time in the day and sheer desire. Both should not be excuses.
The American Historical Association lists three benefits of studying history–that when you think about it, can be translated to so many elements in life:
1. The Ability to Assess Evidence
2. The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations
3. Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change
The American Revolution Center found 83% of adults failed a basic test on the American Revolution in 2009. (I scored a 90% on the same test–a little comfort in knowing I have not fried every brain cell since the 10th grade)
I now think we’re compelled to be more conscious in our post-school learning, no matter what the circumstance. Some work 3 jobs to get by and put food on the table. I think 5 minutes with a newspaper on the commute or waking up to 10 minutes of news radio is as much a privilege as a responsibility. We can become educated and question the information sources. Not everyone can.
I finished the last 10 pages of “Night” on the train ride home.