Mark Smith: We need to change our approach to the Holocaust

Whoopi Goldberg has been expressing her views on the Holocaust. The Nazi genocide of Jews wasn’t about race at all, she said, and had in fact involved “two groups of white people”.

Members of a school board in Tennessee have also been expressing their views. Maus, the celebrated graphic novel about the Holocaust, should be banned from their schools, they said, because they did not want to promote that “kind of stuff”.

And then we have the authors of a new book which claims to have identified the person who betrayed Anne Frank to the Nazis: a Jewish man called Arnold van den Bergh. Their theory has since been heavily criticised by scholars but it also demonstrates how hard it is – or should be – to talk about the Holocaust with any authority. Perhaps before they express their views, Whoopi and the Tennessee school board and anyone else with opinions should read the testimony of people who were actually there and know what they’re talking about.

I mean people like Rosa Sacharin. I met the late Mrs Sacharin at her home in Glasgow when she was 83 years old and she told me about her childhood in Potsdam in the 30s. She remembered being at school on the day Hitler gained absolute power. The headmaster was removed because he was not a member of the Nazi party. The children were also taken to the playground and taught the Hitler salute.

Mrs Sacharin then told me what happened next. “We went into our classroom and the teacher said as long as she was at the school, no Jewish pupil would be hurt. But she became pregnant and left. The next teacher, a man, arrived in his SS uniform. He was a nasty piece of work. The philosophy was that the Jews were stupid, dirty and untrustworthy.”

Not long afterwards, Rosa’s father was arrested and put on trial. Rosa never saw him again and believed he died in Treblinka. She also believed her brother Abraham died in Belzec, although she never did find out for sure. Her mother managed to hide in Berlin and they were eventually reunited, but Rosa was always upset and disturbed by not knowing for sure what happened to her father and brother. She called it unfinished business.

Anyone who’s read that kind of testimony, or more famous examples like Anne Frank’s diary, will know how fatuous and shocking Whoopi Goldberg’s comments are, but they may also be unsurprised that she was happy to express her views. Who doesn’t have a fact-free view about the Holocaust, or the Second World War? Who hasn’t watched a Channel 5 documentary and proclaimed themselves an expert? Who hasn’t been in an online argument in which someone has called someone else “Hitler”?

The problem – and I’ve talked to the Israeli writers and film-makers Ari Folman and David Polonsky about this – is that there’s a lot of stuff about the Holocaust out there (films, books, blogs, opinions) and not all of it is very good. Polonsky actually called it the “Holocaust industry” and said he was worried that it might look like he was joining it when he and Folman created a graphic novel of Frank’s diary.

They needn’t have worried: the graphic novel is a triumph and that’s partly because it comes from reality: the diary itself of course, but Folman is also the son of two Holocaust survivors who were taken to Auschwitz on the same day as Anne Frank. It doesn’t mean Folman is overly-reverent about the subject – far from it, he and his family have used jokes and humour to cope – but it does mean that he recognises how important it is to keep telling the story and to tell it with respect.

This, I think, is the message that Whoopi Goldberg, the members of the Tennessee school board and anyone else who wades in should keep in mind whenever they talk about the Holocaust. Whatever a school board in the Deep South may say, we must continue to tell the story of the Holocaust, including and especially to children. But Ms Goldberg’s intervention also demonstrates something else: we should approach the subject with an open mind, and respect, and free of our own agendas. We should cut back on the talking and do more of the listening.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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