Many of us have a hard time with the concept of death. Sure, we have seen it first hand with our grandparents or close friends, celebrities and politicians, but anything further in the past from yesterday and we have a hard time conceiving of it. Take war for instance. Death tolls are just numbers to us. Of course each number represents a loved one taken from a family too soon, but as a whole, the idea of thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people dying in battle is difficult for us to grasp.
Maybe it is because we cannot visualize what “twenty thousand people” looks like or maybe it is because it happened before we were born, but the gravity of the death toll is lost on us. They become numbers learned in a textbook or seen in a museum, not individual lives, personalities, names, histories.
This thought struck me a few weeks ago as I walked the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War on July 1-3 of 1863, the battle with the most casualties of that war. Between 46,000 and 51,000 people died over the course of that three-day period, however now, nearly 150 years after the battle, the magnitude of the carnage seems glossed over in favor of reenactments, celebrations, and good cheer. Want to buy a key chain or a mock-up of a Union rifle? Pick any of the numerous gift shops along the main drag and you can get any souvenir you like. Coffee mugs, key chains, stuffed animals, t-shirts and bumper stickers are everywhere and you can have them. It can be off-putting, attempting to understand the history and slaughter that took place there while inundated with commercialism.
Couple that with the experience we felt days later in Washington, D.C., as we visited the Holocaust Museum. Talk about a difference in atmosphere. Instead of re-enactors and toy guns, there were railroad cars and gas canisters and thousands of pairs of shoes taken from the victims of the Nazi atrocities before they were sent to the gas chambers. While the concept of six million dead is still tough to grasp, it certainly wasn’t handled with the élan we had experienced in Gettysburg. “Somber” is not a strong enough word. It was as if, upon emerging from the elevator into the exhibit, a 100-pound weight had been placed on our shoulders.
None of that is to mean that there were no aspects of commercialism, for the gift shop still held the usual trinkets to celebrate our visit, but they were at least, for the most part, geared towards the attitudes of tolerance and acceptance as well as education, with tremendous amounts of books, both fiction and non-fiction, designed to instruct and enlighten those who yearned for more.
Clearly, they were two different experiences in dealing with death, for that is what they both were—they were presentations of death. Granted they were not identical for one was an actual theater where soldiers fought to the death and the other was a demonstration of genocide in which a people were persecuted and unable to strike back.
And like all experiences in my life, it got me to thinking… will there come a time when scenes of horrific atrocities and death will become so commercialized and touristy such that the death toll is ignored or glossed over? Seriously, will we one day be visiting concentration camps not with the feeling of solemnity but of glee and merriment?
I know I am being a bit facetious, but one can’t help but wonder at the “celebration” that we experienced at the site of America’s most bloody battlefield. Where now stands a gift shop was where an 18-year old kid died a horrible and bloody death, a child with his whole life ahead of him, struck down before the prime of his life, before he had a chance to fall in love, have children, and die in old age surrounded by his family and loved ones. 150 years is a long time that we have difficulty fathoming the magnitude of the deaths.
So why is it acceptable? Why do we flock to re-enactments, why do thousands of people dress up in Civil War-era clothing and “play?” Well, you may be surprised, but I have a theory on the subject. Just go with me on this…
While a tragic time in America’s history, the Civil War was a necessary evil. The issues about which the sides fought were numerous, but clearly the end of slavery and a re-unification of the States were essential and allowed for our country to re-establish itself as true united states. So while the war itself was unfortunate, our country’s success is because of it. We can look back now and call each and every one of those soldiers, those dead, as heroes who fought to make this county what it is today. Our country not only rose above the segregation of the states, but reunified stronger than ever to create an even more powerful and cohesive country.
The Holocaust, by contrast, is nothing like that… yet. Currently the world Jewish population numbers just shy of thirteen million. Make sure you read that right—the WORLD Jewish population. Not the U.S.A., not Israel, not Hollywood– in the entire world. And during the Holocaust, six million Jews were murdered. Those numbers are staggering. As things currently stand, the Jewish population is shrinking and the Holocaust only served to speed up the process of Jewish extinction.
But, imagine this. Imagine the Jewish population does a 180 and increases. Through whatever methods, the number of Jews in the world skyrockets. It exceeds twenty million, thirty million, fifty million. Will we at that time view the Holocaust differently? We will never, ever, ever forget the atrocities and horrors that were inflicted on the Jewish people, but if the Jewish population rallies from this and grows and grows and grows, will we look back at the Holocaust as a mere blip on the radar of the Jewish people? Might we even (gulp!) laugh at the efforts of the Nazis? “Ha ha ha—they killed six million of us, but we didn’t stop, we are more numerous and powerful than ever, so take that! Bet you guys feel really silly… na na na na na!” (as we stick our tongues out at them and make faces…)
The running joke is that so many Jewish holidays are based on the premise that they (whoever they may have been) tried to kill us, they failed, we survived, let’s eat. It has been sixty-six years since the end of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps- in eighty-four years, will we view the concentration camps differently?
Like I said, the concept of death is foreign to us. The idea that thousands and thousands of people died in one place over the course of three days is alien. But it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Simply because we cannot conceptualize it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it its due somberness. But hey, what didn’t kill us only made us stronger right? So perhaps as we re-enact the Civil War battles and wear our t-shirts and wave our Confederate flags, we are celebrating that which made our country stronger.
I can’t wait to celebrate the Holocaust simply as that blip on the radar, that event which didn’t kill us but made us stronger; not just as Jews, but as crusaders against villainy and tyranny.