February 23, 2014
The first time I was ever terrified by a story was during my sixth grade class’s reading of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which we finished just before going to see a live production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Though Number the Stars is fiction, it’s an imaginative retelling of stories told to Lowry by her friend Annelise Platt, who herself was a child during the Nazis’ occupation of Denmark and who saw so many of the things that the book’s protagonist, Annemarie Johansen, had seen. The book captivated me then—it still captivates me, in its moments of rushed and slowed momentum, a drama that can’t be replicated by a horror movie. Because Annemarie had been about my age when I first read it, because I had not yet known about such a horror of history, Number the Stars quickly, effortlessly became my first favorite book. And I’ve decided to revisit it here.
I began thinking about this book again while walking with my study abroad class to the river Ohře, near the Terezín concentration camp about thirty minutes outside of Prague. I’d been to Terezín before—I had been to the camp itself as well as the Jewish ghetto just outside of it—but I’d never seen this river before. The river, maybe fifty feet wide, was muddy and brown and flowed very slowly, against a backdrop of perfectly green trees and bushes.
The plaque on a memorial stone just next to the river read:
AT THIS PLACE IN NOVEMBER 1944 THE ASHES OF TWENTY TWO THOUSAND JEWISH VICTIMS FROM THE TEREZÍN GHETTO WERE ORDERED BY THE NAZIS TO BE THROWN INTO THE OHŘE RIVER.
This was why we visited. Our tour guide, a man named Tomás, wanted us to see the way history had lingered—to see the way we could, more than virtually, understand how a horror could spread from man to earth. Some of the ashes, he said, were likely still on the riverbed, and the river was therefore sacred.
It was a river in which no one could swim or fish. A river no one could touch.
Turning 180 degrees from the river I could see two large, beautiful green hills in the distance, separated from us by a small grouping of buildings and churches, completely nonghettoized compared to everything nearer to the camp. Though I’d seen the Czech countryside before, this time I thought about the scenery I’d remembered from Lowry’s book, the vast greens and pacifying hills and random little trees popping up in the distance.
This book, after I read it, quickly imprinted within me what I’ll call my childhood obsession with the Holocaust. I had planned to take German when I got to junior high because I thought it would help me understand Hitler’s speeches (which I listened to constantly on Microsoft Encarta ’98), his sharp and abrasive tone penetrating my every fiber. Under my father’s [unsecured] video store account I rented Schindler’s List years before I should have been able to do so, and watched it in private, soaking up every scene of piled bodies or a child shot at point blank or a group of malnourished Jews being rushed into a shower. Far more than anything about the KKK or stories of child kidnappers, the Holocaust terrified me.
So I paid strict attention to it. I think I became obsessed because I’ve always had the tendency to fixate upon things that scare me, have always—not being ostentatiously courageous—wanted to stare them in the face until I’ve been able to make sense of the thing I’m staring at, until it isn’t scary anymore. But I don’t think that I could ever make sense of the Holocaust. I don’t know who could.
When I was little, I thought I held a kind of Jewish empathy for Lowry’s characters in the book. Specifically, for the Jewish characters Ellen Rosen and her parents. I understand, now, that I felt somehow connected to Jewish characters because I knew their stories better than I knew the Christians’. My own parents read the Bible to me as a child, but I should say they stopped right after Moses—right after I learned about the burning bush and the splitting of the sea and the Ten Commandments and the partying at the foot of Horeb—and I knew that these were Jewish stories. I did go to church a handful of times as a child, but I only went with friends and was always made uncomfortable by my lack of understanding. I don’t know how or where or when I learned about Christ, but it wasn’t from my parents, and I used this to connect with people like little Anne Frank and Ellen Rosen.
Lowry’s book, I want to say, is ultimately a book about bravery. The bravery of friends both old and young, and one family’s mission to keep another family safe. I didn’t know it then, but as I read the book I was learning about power—the power of endurance and the power of fear and the power of keeping secrets, which, I saw later on, was the best way of ensuring the safety of a loved one.
Protagonist Annemarie isn’t aware of her bravery—she isn’t certain she can keep the others safe. In the chapter “Why Are You Lying?” she stands next to her uncle Henrik as he milks his cow, and he asks her directly how brave she thinks she is:
“Not very,” she confessed, looking at the floor of the barn.
Tall Uncle Henrik knelt before her so that his face was level with hers. Behind him, Blossom lowered her head, grasped a mouthful of hay in her mouth, and drew it in with her tongue. The kitten cocked its head, waiting, still hoping for spilled milk.
“I think that is not true,” Uncle Henrik said. “I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave.
“But,” he added, “It is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything. And so your mama does not know everything. Neither do I. We know only what we need to know.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” he asked, looking into her eyes.
Annemarie frowned. She wasn’t sure. What did bravery mean? She had been very frightened that day—not long ago, though now it seemed far in the past—when the soldier had stopped her on the street and asked questions in his rough voice.
What did bravery mean? What did it mean to be brave during this time when it was so direly necessary? Bravery meant the ability to stand firmly in front of the Nazis—who were monsters and not men—without trembling knees or a trembling voice or eyes that wandered into the distance. This was Annemarie Johansen’s plight—facing these monsters after crossing bridges and rounding corners, finding unpleasant surprises.
In the chapter “My Dogs Smell Meat!” Annemarie has a run-in with a few Nazis. She’s just carried a basket through the woods, through a dark path, to give to Uncle Henrik, after her mother had earlier forgotten to give him something she’d put in Annemarie’s basket. She acts like a child, like her younger sister Kirsti, to keep them unsuspecting of any secrets.
Annemarie does much better here than I imagined I would have done with these monsters. I would not have been a brave boy. I always imagined myself crying and pleading—because I was a black boy, likely to be either sterilized or made to perform in the theater under the Third Reich, my ability for salvation dependent on my theatrical talent or on the Nazis’ mercy. I imagine myself now as a boy in their plays, maybe wearing dresses to pose as a girl, or perhaps an apron to pose as a servant, hiding a wealth of terror behind a forced performance, behind forced happiness and a forced smile and forced laughter. Behind, really, forced survival. Because I’d seen Schindler’s List, because I’d seen children take bullets on film, I thought there’d be no mercy for a black boy in the Holocaust, unaware then that minstrel might’ve saved me.
“Why teach children,” asks Phillip Lopate, “about Buchenwald and not other genocides?” He goes on:
The Holocaust becomes their first, sometimes their exclusive, official school instruction on death and evil. Of course, kids daily see war and gore on the six o’clock news, but in school we seem to want them to encounter the horrors of mass killing solely through presentation about the fate of the Jews. It is almost as if we Jews wanted to monopolize suffering, to appropriate death as our own. But as Irving Louis Horowitz points out, while Judaism as a way of life is special, there is no “special nature of Jewish dying. Dying is a universal property of many peoples, cultures and nations.”
Correction: it is a universal property of all peoples, cultures, and nations. So why do we learn about the Holocaust en masse? I’m not sure what elementary schools are teaching today, but I know that before sixth grade I had no formal instruction on what we’ve dubbed here “death and evil.” Perhaps this is why I felt overwhelmed and overstimulated in my learning about numbers so high in relation to death and suffering. Learning about the six million murdered—a symbolically significant number that, only as of January 2013, Israel itself has reclaimed—did more than knock me back to a place from where I wanted so adamantly to push forward afterwards. Six million itself is already a large number for a boy, but when coupled with death it became something I had to process, something to digest, something I absolutely had to get through, which I only managed by trying to take in all accounts at once.
Lowry’s book, everything surrounding its events and catastrophes, opened me—like a pupil—and I wanted to soak up every bit of learning. Had I been in junior high we would’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, in high school Elie Wiesel’s Night, in college Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and maybe Eugen Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell. But this was elementary school and we were children, and my teacher saw fit to give us literature she thought we could grapple with; and grapple we did. We learned, all at once, about the Jews being hidden, about the Jews being deported, and, on brighter days, about the Jews escaping the monsters as the Rosens did in Number the Stars. It was a flood. There was so much information and so much to try and make sense of; but a book like Lowry’s eased the pain of seeing all the pictures that can never be erased from memory.
Is it possible that we learn about and teach the Holocaust this way because other children like me need the flood? Because six million can only be balanced in our heads with heavy bits of film and literature? Was the best way for me to process all of this by knowing, from the beginning of that Social Studies unit, that the stories would never end?
“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” writes Theodor Adorno. No one, according to him, who didn’t live through the Holocaust has the right to create art regarding it, which is a problematic idea for those who wish to explore it in their novels, their paintings, their poetry. It’s problematic for myself, as I try here to look more closely at my first favorite book.
I suppose I’ve been railing against Adorno this whole time—I’ve been thinking it’s a little unfair to bar any non-survivor from creating art that regards the Holocaust, if only because it helps me defend things like Number the Stars or Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust or Bernard Schlink’s The Reader.
Or, perhaps, I’m defending my own empathy—defending the way I felt when I was twelve and terrified by a story, when I read about these little girls and their families. As a child thinking uncritically I was impacted—by new knowledge, by numbers, by watching those my age in the stories I’d read and watched be more scared than I had ever been—and it’s this lack of criticism that’s brought me here. That has brought me, inexplicably, to a place where I want nothing but to look back and stare, and that has brought me to a place where I embrace the fortune of having been born at the right time.