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Monday, 1 December 2014

How the Holocaust is Sacrificed to Ignorance

When a Canadian journalist and novelist asked local university students what they knew about the Holocaust, the answer was acutely embarrassing.

It turned out that most interviewees knew little or nothing about either the greatest tragedy of the 20th century or its two World Wars, although The Canadian Encyclopaedia describes World War II as a ‘defining moment’ in the country’s history, and cites two major battles as well as the number of Canadian personnel sent to fight in western Europe.

Jerry.AmernicMoreover, Jerry Amernic, a P.R. man, newspaper columnist and novelist, has discovered that knowledge of the Holocaust is best in Sweden and worst in the United States.

What does he believe is the reason for this astounding situation, I asked during an online interview based on his new Holocaust thriller, The Last Witness.

He said: I’m not familiar with the Swedish educational system. However, I do know that in my own country and in the U.S. the schools are letting the kids down. And it goes beyond the teaching, or non-teaching, of history. How about something like English and language? Back in the 1990s I taught college courses in writing and journalism. I taught kids who were right out of high school and I also taught courses for graduate students. That means they needed a university degree to take the course. And what I found was that the kids who had their entire education in Canada generally possessed little or no basic knowledge of common grammar. How ridiculous was that? Here you have someone who wants to be a journalist and they never even learned basic grammar”!

‘So what exactly was the Holocaust and ‘D-Day’’?

Amernic, who has an Israeli publisher and distributor interested in his book, insisted many times during our interview that ignorance was the root cause of much of the problem and says his story

“  … is about ignorance and complacency. I figured that one day there will be one last living survivor of the Holocaust. What will the world be like then? I chose the year 2039 which makes my protagonist 100 years old. One publisher who turned down the book – there were many – said he had to ‘suspend belief’ with the notion that people one generation into the future would know so little about the Holocaust. Well, he was wrong. That’s why I produced that video interviewing university students to see what they know. Never mind the future, the ignorance out there right now is very disturbing”.

Does he agree that we’re now suffering  the worst surge in global antisemitism – or anti-Jewish hatred - since the end of World War II?

“It’s hard to say, but one thing I do know is that rampant prejudice against any identified group is usually fuelled by ignorance. And when economic deprivation joins forces with ignorance, you have ‘a perfect storm’ for racism. These days many young people in Europe are unemployed and in several countries we are seeing the rise of far-right political parties. Also, the cauldron in the Middle East shows no sign of abating. Put all this together and for some people that is a recipe for antisemitism”.

Was it directly caused by this past summer’s IDF campaign in Gaza or was it triggered by something else?

“It’s amazing the conclusions some people jumped to during that conflict, and deep down I think that too many people out there inevitably believe what they want to believe, no matter the facts. If they harbour an element of antisemitism in their gut, it will rise to the surface when the opportunity presents itself”.

Amernic, a member of a Jewish family and whose sister-in-law was born in Bergen-Belsen shortly after the war, was stirred in part to write his book after recalling a childhood meeting with a tattooed camp survivor.  But, he told me, there was much more:

“I’m a journalist, but one who likes to write historical fiction. For many years I’ve been absorbed with the whole idea of the Holocaust. I say absorbed in terms of trying to come to grips with how a country like Germany, which you wouldn’t consider an intellectual backwoods in the global scheme of things, could perpetrate this horror. But … you have the seed of antisemitism, which is always there, and then when the opportunity presents itself, it rises to the surface. The Holocaust is the most extreme example of this that human history has ever seen”.

So it wasn’t purely research for this book that made him ponder total unawareness about Holocaust matters in Canada?

“It’s not only the Holocaust, but history per se. Do you know the (board) game Trivial Pursuit? Play that with a young person, someone under the age of 30 or 35, and choose the history category. Here in North America young people have limited knowledge of what is very basic history. And that’s because they didn’t learn it in school. A friend of mine, a journalist who now teaches journalism at college, told me about a survey done in the state of Texas in the United States. A lot of people apparently didn’t know who fought in the U.S. Civil War or who won it! That is pretty sad”.

Amernic added later:

 It’s largely the school system. When I went to school we had history and geography – social studies it was called in the lower grades – throughout public school and also into high school. Today, certainly in Canada and I think in a number of other Western countries as well, the schools no longer stress this. In the province of Ontario – about 40 per cent of Canadians live in Ontario – you can take one credit in history in your first year of high school and never touch a history book again. Young people are abysmally ignorant of World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, and other major world events. And it’s not their fault. I consider them innocent victims of a school system that has let them down. It has let down an entire generation”.

It appears that the system has also failed the previous generation. When Amernic confirmed that the period was not taught to pre-university matriculation  students, he added:

“Think how a war veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944 would feel when he sees a university student say she doesn’t know who fought who at Normandy or what happened there? You can also ask these kids how they get their news today. They don’t read newspapers, that’s for sure. So do they get it online? Maybe. But an awful lot of them are just not informed. And that may stem from the fact that when they went to elementary school and middle school and high school, they didn’t learn basic history in the first place. And let’s not only dwell on Canada …”

Our interview then moved to the current story of Amernic’s countryman and fellow Jew, Ezra Levant, a right-wing political commentator who has just lost a libel case against Muslim fellow lawyer Khurrum Awan. If he were able to comment in view of Levant’s decision to appeal against the judicial ruling, what was his opinion about the present outcome? Amernic said:

“ …  As far as Levant is concerned, a number of people including those in the media are sometimes quick to jump to conclusions. Journalists should know better. You don’t accuse someone of being antisemitic, or homophobic, or whatever just because you feel like it. I find, and I speak as a journalist myself here, that too many people in the media sometimes allow opinion to cloud the facts. In tabloid journalism there’s an old saying about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. I think there is too much of that going on today”.

Finally I  asked Amernic what was the most important thing he had learnt from his project? His answer was blunt.

“… we shouldn’t sacrifice the education of future generations. And we’re doing that”.

 

My father used to take me to the local Jewish bakery where this kindly woman behind the counter would serve us. I remember seeing numbers on her arm, but I was just a boy and didn’t know what those numbers meant. Later I found out. One day in the not-too-distant future there is going to be one person left. One survivor. This is what my novel The Last Witness is about.

“I’m like many writers in that an idea for a book may germinate over time before any writing begins. That’s what happened with The Last Witness which is set in the year 2039 when the world is abysmally ignorant and complacent about events of the last century. Jack Fisher is a 100-year-old man whose worst memories took place before he was 5. His story hearkens back to the Jewish ghetto of his birth and to Auschwitz where he had to fend for himself to survive as a little boy after losing all his family. Jack becomes the central figure in a missing-person investigation when his granddaughter suddenly disappears. While assisting police, he finds himself in danger and must reach into the darkest corners of his memory to come out alive.

“I did a lot of research to write this book. Even though it’s a novel, I wanted things to be accurate. That meant interviewing such people as noted Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert, meeting real-life survivors who were just children when they were liberated in 1945, and looking into the current state of Holocaust awareness which is not a pretty picture.

Then there is Elly Gotz who spent three years as a boy in a Jewish ghetto in Lithuania. Elly, a remarkable man, was a great help to me with the flashbacks of my novel. Only Elly could tell me that I couldn’t have oranges in the ghetto because there were no oranges in Poland during the German occupation. Only Elly could tell me that German soldiers had rifles, not machine guns, in the ghetto. He could tell me this because he knew first-hand”.

* The Last Witness is being released as an e-book and in print through Story Merchant Books, and is now available at Amazon. A review will appear soon on Alwayswriteagain.

© Natalie Wood (02 December 2014)

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