Anita Epstein was born in the Krakow ghetto. Her mother gave her away when she was 3 months old to a Gentile woman who had four children of her own, to be raised as a Catholic. "They realized--most of them--they were going into camps," Epstein recalls. "Whether they realized babies were going to be thrown off roofs. . . " Most of her immediate family, including grandparents, aunts and two young cousins, perished in the camps. Her mother survived Auschwitz.
After the war she returned to Krakow and found her daughter. They came to the United States when Anita was 9 and settled in New York. "Living in New York," she says, "you somehow knew about it. . . In my house, people talked about it constantly." The choice that author William Styron's Sophie had to make in Auschwitz--"that surrounded me all my life," says Epstein.
Then she moved to Washington, or more to the point, away from New York. Twice in recent years she has encountered adult, college-educated Americans who had never heard about the Holocaust. "The same thing happened to my daughter," she says. "When the Holocaust television program was shown, she went to school--in that school there were only three or four Jews--several kids said we had no idea this ever existed."
Lucy S. Dawidowicz, author of "War Against the Jews" and "The Holocaust and the Historians," writes in the latter: "It is plain from even the most cursory review of textbooks and scholarly works by English and American historians that the awesome events of the Holocaust have not been given their historic due. For over two decades some secondary school and college texts never mentioned the subject at all, while others treated it so summarily or vaguely as to fail to convey sufficient information about the events themselves or their historical significance."
She attributes this partly to academic training that leads American historians to specialize and partly to the American taste for the pragmatic over the ideological. "The Holocaust and Nazism and its anti-Semitism and racism was fundamentally an ideological question. It was a world view."
Anita Epstein is the wife of a colleague and friend. I remember being stunned to discover that the wife of a friend and contemporary had been so intimately affected by the concentration camps of Nazi Europe. On a different scale, others of my generation and younger have been surprised to discover recently that 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned in camps by the American government.
The 20th century has produced violence and human carnage on a scale unprecedented in the history of man. Richard L. Rubenstein, in "The Cunning of History," cites estimates of 100 million people being killed during this century as a direct result of political acts by states. The least helpful way to view the Holocaust, he argues, is as the work of a handful of demented criminals. The Jews of Europe were regarded by many nations, not just the Germans, as surplus people, he notes.
"At Auschwitz," he writes, "the Germans revealed new potentialities in the human ability to dominate, enslave, and exterminate. They also revealed new areas in which capitalistic enterprise might profitably and even respectably be employed. The camps were thus far more of a permanent threat to the human future than they would have been had they functioned solely as an excercise in mass killing." He warns of how this could become the prototype of a future social order, "especially in a world confronted by catastrophic crises and ever-increasing, massive population redundancy."
On the front of the National Archives is inscribed the saying: "The Past Is Prologue." Yet we, as a nation, teach precious little about it. We learn about slavery from a television series. We graduate people from high school who have only a vague idea of the Nazi extermination program.
It is because of this that some 10,000 survivors of concentration camps felt compelled to gather in Washington this week to remind the rest of America of the Holocaust. Their stories are so painful to read one wonders how they can even speak of what happened. They are doing so because they understand that it is not enough to be silent or to speak only among themselves or with their families. They understand the lack of a sense of history that Americans have. They know that a nation that does not study and understand evil in the past is ill equipped to prevent it in the future.