I can't imagine why I was permitted at the age of 9 to watch footage from the concentration camps. As if playing on a screen now, I can see skeletal bodies piled on top of one another. Or better said, intertwined with one another. Nothing I saw was as neat as a pile.
I can see German shepherds barking at children in winter coats with their arms in the air. Dead bodies in my memory are resting on sidewalks and people with big stars walk by without noticing. All this action is in black and white. I can see the bodies being put in ovens and the big smoke rising from a chimney. Today, you would say, it was just wrong to allow me to see that horror at such a young age.
The Holocaust image I saw in color as a child was the tailor who worked at Shay's Cleaners in Wynnefield. This neighborhood of stone houses had all Jewish residents by their own choosing. The man with his white shirt-sleeves rolled up above his elbows pushed fabric through the machine. His arm had the numbers. Its hard not to stare. And when I asked, I was told that the Germans put Jews in concentration camps, killed and burned them in ovens. They numbered them to keep track of the six million adults and children. Numbers were tattooed into people's flesh.
No one told or even tried to tell a white lie about them. You could have made up a story. After all they told some fakakte story about Elijah coming down a ladder from heaven at Chanukah to leave Chanukah gifts. I was supposed to know the story of our people. And we were all supposed to be mad at Cousin William because he drove a Porsche. "We'd never buy a German car."
Aunt Leah and Uncle Charlie adopted a boy, Moishe. His parents, and I guess his whole family, had been killed in the camps. My Mom-mom and Pop-pop were planning to do that too. That was the deal they all made with God and with one another. "If our sons come back from the war we'll each adopt a child." My Uncle didn't come back so my grandparents didn't adopt. It seems even the more so they should have, but I can understand a broken heart. And a broken deal.
"You have to have four children," said Cousin Ruth. You replace one another, you replace a child from the Holocaust and then one more to grow."
Holocaust references were just part of growing up in the Jewish suburbs of Philadelphia. Images of dead bodies, moral obligations of how many children to have, and global purchasing policy were woven into our lives with the same level of normalcy as what time the Ed Sullivan Show was on and the plastic horses you got to sit on at Pliners Children's Shoe Store in the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center.
Because each generation has to think it is is doing it a better way, I was careful to only share developmentally age appropriate Holocaust materials. As an educator I'm sure I only permitted Holocaust stories of heroes and family strength. We had speakers that told their stories of hiding in a farm, working in a mine. They all had survived to tell their story.
I'd like to think I honored the developmental code when telling the story of the Holocaust to my own children. But in truth, I wouldn't trust that. I'm not sure, not sure at all, what I leaked to my own children. I'm sure they'll tell me.
As an educator, one thing I was absolutely sure. I would not lead a school with the "Be Jewish so Hitler wouldn't win" mentality. When I came into education there was still the remnant of a Judaism that had to continue because of what the Germans did. No way. I'd be a leader of a joyous Judaism. My mission was a Judaism of meaning, and friendship, and celebration. On Yom Hashoah we'd have a speaker. We could all read a developmentally appropriate book about someone's story and then when the students were in middle school and high school they could learn more about the Holocaust. This was the curriculum, as advised to me, by the experts. And it felt right.
And now I'm not so sure. Is the Holocaust, a story to be studied at a developmentally age appropriate time? Or is it a topic to be seared into visceral memory to inform who you are and what you choose to do?