The Space Under My Chair, 2020, oil on linen, by Carl Hammoud. Courtesy the artist and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin, Texas. Photograph: Hendrik Zeitler
Cutting Across Lines
Teaching Holocaust Literature in Arkansas
By Dorian Stuber
In her brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001), Ruth Kluger calls Vienna her “first prison.” Whereas other Jewish exiles, even those only a decade older, remembered the city as home, Kluger, born in 1931, knew it only as purgatory. No swimming lessons in the Danube for her. No summer vacations in the nearby hills. No playgrounds, no park benches. (Chillingly, the only place she could run around with her friends was the Jewish cemetery.) Even American readers unfamiliar with 20th-century European history will recognize the terrifying stages of her persecution: prohibitions on where and how to live, followed by dispossession, terrorizing threats and acts of violence, and finally deportation to the camps, where she escaped death only through sheer good fortune. But those same readers likely will not expect the comparison she proceeds to make, even though it is to a much more familiar period of 20th-century American history. Kluger leaves Vienna and the past behind and flashes forward to her later experience in America: “In 1950, in Texas, the shock of recognition at the menacing signs of segregation, from water fountains to toilets, was like a slap in the face, though not meant for me.”
It wasn’t until I began teaching Still Alive in a classroom filled with students from Texas and other Southern locales that I even noticed that sentence. It was my own slap in the face. I’d never thought that the place where I live and work—the American South (and Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, specifically)—had anything to do with the persecution of Europe’s Jews in the middle of the past century. I was as wrong about that as I was in thinking I was unconnected to the long afterlife of the Jim Crow South. Kluger’s slap—so strangely open-ended that it’s unclear who receives it—was my wake-up call. To study the past, I was reminded, is to learn to navigate the present. These temporal markers shift depending on where we’re reading from. For some readers the Texas passage might be interesting but insignificant. But for me and my students it is as vital as it is vexing. As state-sponsored forms of systematic oppression, the Holocaust and the Jim Crow South had much in common. In particular, they exemplify the ongoing nature of trauma. This connection is no anachronism. It was a reality expressed by people who lived through these oppressive systems. Kluger notes that Jews were forced to navigate the world through what the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” the requirement that the minority always see the world through the lens of the majority, even when that vision is based on their very dehumanization. On a visit to the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto in 1949, Du Bois was surprised by what he learned: he gained “not so much [a] clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real and more complete understanding of the Negro problem.” In his essay “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto” he wrote that after visiting the Polish capital “the problem of slavery, emancipation, and caste in the United States was no longer in my mind a separate and unique thing as I had so long conceived it.” Du Bois, who was no stranger to violent oppression, who had seen “the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation,” was unprepared for the devastation the war had left behind: “nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949,” both the destruction of the city itself and the murder of its Jewish population. “The race problem in which I was interested,” Du Bois concluded, “cut across lines of color and physique and belief and status.” Movingly, this titanic figure, the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, a founding member of the NAACP, realized that understanding Jewish suffering deepened his understanding of his own: “The ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism into a broader conception of what the fight against race segregation, religious discrimination and the oppression by wealth had to become.”
In turn, Kluger insisted that the experience of being on the run—which she lived after escaping from a forced march in the last days of the war—was never captured as vividly as by Toni Morrison in Beloved, her novel about a fugitive slave. The example of Du Bois and Kluger suggests that juxtaposing past traumas is generative rather than competitive. My Southern students have embraced the idea that, as the scholar Michael Rothberg puts it, memory is multidirectional—not a finite commodity groups must fight over, but a malleable substance that changes, often enriching our understanding of lived experience. Unsurprisingly, my students of color are the savviest at recognizing this fact. African American and Asian American students most readily pick up, for example, on code switching—the practice of moving between languages or idioms, even within a single conversation, depending on whom you’re talking to, a reality experienced by many Jews who sought to survive the war in hiding.
Reading Kluger in Arkansas, I am led not simply to compare and contrast distinct yet overlapping historical events. Instead, I am compelled to think about belonging. The community I identify with most strongly is the world of European Jewishness the Nazis tried to destroy. I belong to those who weren’t allowed to belong. I don’t expect my students to share that sense. But I want my classroom to be a space where students feel they belong so that together we form a community of curious learners. Having been students their whole lives, they know well the importance of inclusive learning communities (where they can experiment with different ideas, refine their thinking, and work together to learn more than they could on their own). Feeling safe isn’t being cosseted. In a supportive classroom students can reflect on what communities and identities they both do and don’t belong to. Responding to the violence of history—whether a slap in the face or something worse—requires that each of us thinks about our belonging. Whom does it include—and exclude?
Belonging is what the Nazis denied Kluger. That feeling of isolation continued long after 1945. No wonder she called Vienna her first prison; more were to come. Some were literal: the hybrid ghetto-camp Theresienstadt near Prague, the vast machinery of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the landscape of slave labor in a sub-camp of the Gross-Rosen network where she toiled with other female prisoners, laying railway tracks and excavating tree stumps. Others were metaphorical, less brutal but still harmful: the guilt and disdain heaped on her after the war by her American Jewish relatives on Long Island, who found her existence a rebuke to their own safe lives; the unvarnished sexism of the postwar American university. Some were personal prisons—like her hasty marriage to a former GI who did not want to understand what had happened to her. Others, most strikingly the segregation of 1950s America, were impersonal systems that affected her even though they were intended to punish someone else. Reading the whites only signs in Texas, Kluger recognized her peculiar reversal of fortune: she who had once been a reviled non-person was now accepted, or at least acceptable. As an almost-white person in America—her Jewishness made her forever somewhat other; part of her remained the Viennese schoolgirl who “wore a Judenstern to alert other pedestrians that I wasn’t really white”—she found herself enmeshed in another system of oppression, responsible to its victims even though she was not responsible for it.
Kluger had experienced the vertigo of unstable identity before, when, in Bavaria at the end of the war, having escaped the Nazis and passing as a German, she found herself on the street just as some SS men herded the prisoners of an evacuated concentration camp through the middle of town. Another slap in the face. “I had never seen ‘us’ from the outside,” she wrote, years later. “And now here they were, my people.” The pronouns she uses here—they, my—convey Kluger’s painful mixed feelings. “I stared at them with intense concentration,” she added, “and knew that if they noticed me at all, it was only as part of a hostile population.” What she felt, she decided, was debt rather than guilt. She did not need to share their fate to be responsible to it: “I wanted to remember seeing them, wanted to remember this one-sided meeting.” She would not look away; she would not deny the complexity of the moment. (How painful and baffling it must have been for her.) In their sophistication, if not in their specific form, Kluger’s reflections are a model to someone like me, living in safety and privilege. Kluger taught me that to know the forms of my own indebtedness—my own responsibility—to others, I needed to understand my own identity position.
Growing up in western Canada, I knew only that I wanted to get away. Life was elsewhere. Maybe in Europe, which my parents had left behind for the raw-scrubbed emptiness of the prairie, a move stemming from my father’s disgust at the tightness of his Swiss upbringing, coupled with my mother’s sense of adventure. No oppression there. They were immigrants, not refugees. Their new beginning was my ordinary reality, and it could never compete with what I perceived as the sophistication of the world they had left behind. I scorned my home, especially as a teenager. This wasn’t a place for me, I thought. (How differently I would come to feel as an adult!) If not in Alberta, then where did I belong? In England, the setting of so many of my favorite childhood stories? In New York, where people went to make it? The U.S. featured only dimly in my childhood, as a yardstick to help Canadians know what they were not. It would have surprised, even disappointed my childhood self to learn I would one day become an American citizen. That I would make my life in Arkansas would have been inconceivable: I’d never heard of the place. Now that I’ve been here fifteen years, the joke’s on me. Getting away seldom means what we think it will.
On the road to the present I was accompanied by what I have come to think of as a silent companion. This secret-sharer was the lost world of 1920s Berlin and 1930s Poland and 1940s Vilna, all the places European Jews enlivened with cultural, scientific, and political ferment. That world fascinated me more than the ones I actually lived in. Its destruction only enhanced its poignancy. Some people remember when they first learned about the Holocaust. I don’t. I experienced nothing like the critic Susan Sontag’s breathless discovery of photos taken during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. “Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously,” Sontag wrote, adding, “It seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after.” My discovery, by contrast, was a steady drip: I remember the trial of James Keegstra, a teacher in a small town a hundred miles from the city where I grew up, a Holocaust denier who was one of the first people in Canada prosecuted for hate speech. I remember the outcry and self-flagellation around the publication of a book exposing Canada’s paltry efforts to save Europe’s Jews in the 1930s. Its title, None Is Too Many, referred to an immigration official’s response to a question about how many refugees Canada should accept. Perhaps under the influence of these events, I remember writing an essay in fifth grade with the lugubrious title “Which Would You Rather Have Been? A Christian under Nero or a Jew under Hitler?”
As these examples suggest, I was at first drawn to the Holocaust as an example of moral clarity. It was easy to tell who was good and who was bad, and comforting to be able to make the distinction. The more I learned, over years of reading and teaching, the more I understood how wrong I was. I wanted to be consoled by clear distinctions about who belonged in which category. Yes, there are perpetrators and their victims. But there are also excruciating gradations of complicity: the bystanders all too happy to expropriate their former neighbors’ apartments; the Jewish community leaders forced by the Nazis to administer ghettos; the prisoners who had no choice but to perpetuate the machinery of camps and other killing sites, cleaning out the cattle cars in which victims arrived, sorting the personal effects taken from them, and even clearing the gas chambers of bodies and burning them in the crematoria. The more reductively we think of the past, even a traumatic event like the Holocaust, the less justice we do to its reality—and thus the suffering of its victims.
Three misconceptions are especially tenacious, and part of my job is disabusing students of them. One, the perpetrators were monsters. (That would be consoling: terrible people long ago and far away did terrible things, but what can you expect, the past was full of ignorance and hate and anyway it doesn’t have anything to do with us.) In fact, there are no monsters, only human beings, and the ability to commit genocide is regrettably part of what it means to be one. Two, survivors were good people who were special in some way: smarter, stronger, more desperate to live. (That would fit with the world of my mostly middle-class, well-loved students, in which effort is supposed to be rewarded.) In fact, survivors are no different than anyone else, shaped by their experience, of course, but seldom possessing noble insights, sometimes even prey to cruel hatreds. Certain skills and attributes—knowing German, being young and healthy, having mastered a trade the perpetrators found useful, like barbering or shoemaking—correlated with survival, but what determined who lived and who died was mostly luck. Three, the Holocaust is incomprehensible: students cannot imagine what victims went through; they believe it would be immodest to put themselves in another person’s shoes. (That would usurp someone else’s trauma, which they are anxious not to do.) In fact, thinking this way muddles identification and understanding. As Kluger puts it, there is a “bad fit between facts and feelings.” The task of those of us who come after the Holocaust is not to feel what victims felt; it’s to understand what happened to them, and on that basis to make conclusions about big questions: the nature of morality, literature, and other artistic production, even human experience. Simply remembering the Holocaust is not enough. The injunction “never again” has come to mean “never again should this group of European Jews be murdered by Nazis.” A meaningless prohibition, unable to respond to current injustice and persecution. It has none of the complexity Kluger’s life story insists upon.
Not everyone finds the world of midcentury European Jews as compelling as I do. But the more I avow how much the Holocaust means to me the more powerful my teaching will be. Teachers, good ones anyway, the ones you learn from in ways that stick, love the objects of their study. We are not, however, encouraged to talk about that love, neither to our students nor to ourselves. Instead we cloak love in disinterestedness, rigor, and the production of knowledge. And while I too read memoirs and diaries and histories of the Holocaust to see patterns, to piece together the full story, to know the complete dimension of the event just for the sake of knowing it, I wouldn’t devote myself to this difficult material if I didn’t also love it.
The Jewish world of prewar Europe is as important to me as the Canada I grew up in and the American Southern one I live in. It bridges the Europe my parents left behind and the Jewish community I joined as an adult. Earlier I called that European Jewish past a companion. As a literary scholar I am drawn to the stories of those who lived in and made that world. Unlike someone like Sontag, for whom the Holocaust meant rupture of the self (she was sliced apart, her life divided in two), I care more for the continuity between now and then, me and those who lived through that moment.
Jewish life between the wars consisted neither of grim preparations for annihilation nor head-in-the-sand myopia. (No one could have known what the future would bring.) Instead Jews built a busy, passionate world full of feverish political engagement: Zionists dreaming of—and preparing for—a promised land in Mandatory Palestine, Bundists forging a secular, trade-unionist future in Poland, and Communists looking to the glorious events in the Soviet Union, which, in its first years at least, offered Jews access to professions and positions they had otherwise never been able to dream of in the Pale of Settlement. Farther west, assimilated Jews in Germany, France, and Austria thought they had found places to which they could belong, feeling as much or as little Jewish as they liked. In both east and west, Jews inhabited a world of lasting artistic and literary achievements, the world of Freud, Kafka, and Chagall.
That world was destroyed. Destruction carries its own seductive pathos, and I feel the pull of that loss. Yet I care more about the vibrancy that came before the murder, the resistance that contested it, and the remnants that persisted afterward. (The story of Jewish resistance is too little known. Resistance took many forms, including but not limited to poems that reminded Jews that they were still part of a living culture, smuggling and forgery operations designed to get people out of sealed ghettos or into hiding, and even violent uprising, whether in the ghetto of Warsaw or the death camp of Sobibor or the forests of Belarus.) Jewish vibrancy comes through best in life stories. If the past that accompanies me is a companion, that imagined person is composed of a host of individuals. People like Dawid Sierakowiak, who liked to climb mountains and flirted with Communism before he was imprisoned in the ghetto of his hometown of Łódź, Poland, where he struggled to keep order in the textile workshop he was forced to work in until his death in 1943 from hunger, weakness, and tuberculosis (also known as “Ghetto disease”). Or Hélène Berr, a gifted student whose Parisian life of bourgeois comfort was overturned with her father’s arrest; after awakening to the reality of how her country felt about her she joined an organization that smuggled Jewish children out of Occupied France, dangerous work she abandoned only when she herself was deported first to Auschwitz and later Bergen-Belsen, where she died only days before liberation. Or Marie Jalowicz, who went underground in wartime Berlin, assisted by a resistance network that at one time pimped her out to an unsuspecting impotent, alcoholic Nazi; she escaped being raped that time, but not later, when a Soviet soldier assaulted her. (Her story encapsulates the ironies of “liberation,” which was seldom a straightforward good.) Or Molly Applebaum, buried by a Polish farmer in a wardrobe under the floor of his barn, from which desperate hiding place the teenager could venture out only at night, when her protector would demand the sex that both assumed was his due payment.
Not one of these people was a professional writer, yet each felt compelled to leave a written record. Many persecuted people feel similarly. But the affinity here goes deeper. Jews have always been “the people of the book”; this fact above all drew me to Judaism. At the center of Jewish religious life is Torah, which must be endlessly read and interpreted. A religion based on close textual analysis was one that made absolute sense to me, as was one in which one could be fully a member without even necessarily believing in God.
By definition, love is idiosyncratic. Why we love this person, place, or thing is mysterious and not easily replicable. Which means I’m not trying to get my students to love the world destroyed by the Holocaust the way I do. Instead I’m trying to make them feel the presence of that love—even if I never call it that to them—trusting they will pick up on it and relate it to their own preoccupations, however tangential or even entirely unrelated to the matter at hand. An atmosphere in which love is being expressed is an atmosphere in which people learn, to which people feel they belong.
My Southern students often ask me if I’m Jewish. Many of them have never met a Jew before. Here the question prompts open-hearted fascination where elsewhere it might incite caution, even fear. I’m reminded of the non-Jewish student who blurted out, after learning the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor (“from generation to generation”), a reference to the commandment that Jews maintain themselves as a people by building a strong connection between old and young, “But that’s just like the South!” I know that I can always count on my Southern students to nod understandingly when I explain the Yiddish word mishpokhe: kinfolk.
Kluger felt the loss of those bonds: “I never experienced the comfort of a mishpokhe. . . . I’d like to belong, but wishing won’t do it. Basically, I never did belong, the dispersion started too early.” Her lament reminds me how lucky I have been to be able to choose who and what I want to belong to. Shrewd readers will have noticed—as I did not until recently—that although I refer to my students as Southerners, I don’t think of myself that way. That has less to do with whatever it might mean to be Southern and more with my innate reluctance to belong to any one thing or place or idea wholeheartedly. It suits me to be in-between. I lived in the U.S. for twenty years before I became a citizen. When you don’t belong, you miss out on certain privileges, but you also don’t have corresponding responsibilities. You can wring your hands at what you don’t like or bemoan the incomprehensible ways of the locals. To live this way, though, requires privilege. More often it is dangerous to live in two cultures, or as a minority, or in the no-man’s-land between two worlds. What Du Bois so memorably said of African Americans is true of other groups who struggle to belong in the place they want to call home: “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
But me, I’m fortunate. I risk no such depredations. It’s ironic, I know, to spend my life studying the plight of people who were desperate to have the same opportunity of belonging that until recently I foreswore. In the first years of their rule, the Nazis developed a program of forced emigration. Mass murder came later. One of their first steps was to strip Jews of citizenship. In so doing, the Nazis proved that other countries, no matter their protestations, were fundamentally uninterested in the plight of Jewish refugees. No one wanted these newly stateless people. To be stateless in a world organized around nation-states is to become unintelligible—not just unassimilable but less than fully human. This situation persists in our time of ever greater numbers of refugees. Already in 1943, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had arrived in New York just two years earlier, having been briefly incarcerated in a camp in southern France, noted wryly how desperately refugees from Hitlerism became patriots of the countries they landed in—even if those countries turned around and expelled them. It’s a luxury to be able to live in another country, even, like me, for decades, without becoming a citizen, all the while still feeling safe.
I was able to dither for so long about becoming an American because I had found another source of belonging. My wife is Jewish; loving her I came to love the tradition. At first I was merely supportive and interested, but as I allowed Jewishness into my life, I eventually identified with it. People assumed I was Jewish; I didn’t disabuse them. I was passing, which made me uncomfortable, especially because the stakes of what for me was a game were nothing like that experienced by African Americans passing as white or Jews passing as Aryan. I felt I was being dishonest; it was time to make my belonging official. Traditionally, Judaism discourages conversion. Orthodox rabbis are supposed to turn potential converts away three times before beginning the process of accepting them. After all, who would want willingly to become a member of one of the most maligned groups in human history? Yet to be a Jew by Choice, the term I prefer to convert, is to be deliberate about something others were simply given as a birthright. In this way, even in converting I managed to keep my distance, to be a minority within a minority. Once again, I could both belong and not belong.
In 1938, in the first week after the Nazis annexed Austria—to the overwhelming delight of its non-Jewish population—seven-year-old Ruth Kluger changed her name. Later the Nazis would change it again, when they forced all Jewish women to take the middle name “Sara” (men were made to take “Israel”). The first time, though, she did it from her own choice. Kluger had been known in the family as Susi, one of her middle names. But changed circumstances required a change in identity: “Now that my tentative faith in my homeland was being damaged by daily increments beyond repair, I became Jewish in defense.” From now on, Kluger insisted, she would be called by her first name, Ruth. (“Under the circumstances,” she decided, “only a Jewish name would do.”) It wasn’t until later that she understood how well the name fit her. The biblical Ruth was “the woman who left her country because friendship meant more to her than kinship.” Ruth the Moabite emigrated because of her loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, whom she followed and whose tradition she took on for herself after the death of her husband (“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God”). I thrill to these stories of freely chosen belonging, especially when, like Kluger’s, done in the midst of oppression. In a happy twist of fate, my daughter’s middle name is Ruth. My wife and I gave it to her, following the Ashkenazi tradition of naming people after deceased ancestors, in homage to her great-grandmother, who, as it happens, was herself born in Arkansas, but it also speaks to her father’s journey. I hope it will encourage her as she makes her own life choices, finds her own people.
Read anything about Holocaust memory today and you will find handwringing about the future. It is true that soon—certainly by the time my daughter comes of age—no one who survived the Holocaust will still be alive. A much-publicized 2020 study suggested widespread ignorance among young Americans about even fundamental aspects of the Holocaust. Arkansas ranked last in the study, with other Southern states languishing nearby at the bottom of the list. To my mind, the greatest danger today is not Holocaust denial, though that insidious lie persists, but Holocaust distortion (attempts to minimize the effects, cast doubt on the number and experience of victims, even blame victims for the events by virtue of their supposed behavior, like the canard that Jews were incapable of resisting, went “like lambs to the slaughter,” etc.). Distortion is mostly malicious, but sometimes is a function of ignorance. My students differ widely in how much they know about the Holocaust when they enter my class. Some have studied it so often they find it almost routine. Others know nothing about it. My few Jewish students have more complex responses: they’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust but often in an overwhelming manner (their religious school education filled with terrorizing questions: “Think of the people in your everyday life: who do you think would shelter you if need be?”). The result can be fear and shame. Some have experienced antisemitism as a result of that teaching (“You Jews always want attention”). All are uncomfortable with the tendency to equate Jewishness with genocide, as if Jews were only sepia-toned victims.
Yet I am hopeful. Students have always been fascinated by the Holocaust, but in the past few years, coinciding—not coincidentally, I’m sure—with the Trump administration, this interest has changed. It’s less abstract, more focused. Today’s students recognize that past injustices seemingly foreign to their own lives connect with present injustices that they are victimized by or complicit in. They understand Ruth Kluger’s reference to 1950s Texas as more than offhanded, especially when I situate it in a larger web of connections between segregationists and fascists. I tell them, for example, about Heinrich Krieger, a Nazi jurist who studied at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1933–34 and wrote a memorandum relied upon by hardliners at a meeting in which the Nazi racial laws, known as the Nuremberg Laws, were hashed out. Krieger was one of several Nazi jurists who found a model for their own aims in the American experience, especially with its anti-miscegenation laws and the category of national subjects who were not full citizens (established after American conquest in Puerto Rico and the Philippines).
If students are shocked in learning about this local connection to the Holocaust, it moves them to action not silence: they have volunteered, for example, to teach Holocaust history and literature across Arkansas, to audiences ranging from middle-school students to local FBI field officers. Students are rightly unsatisfied by mere injunctions to “never forget.” They understand that studying the Holocaust can help them understand current crises like the mainstreaming of white supremacy, internment of migrants at the U.S. border, or mass incarceration. They are increasingly preoccupied by the problem of which bodies are legible, and thus deemed meaningful, and which are illegible, and thus able to be punished without consequence.
In embracing the connection of the Holocaust to the still-unresolved legacy of state-sponsored American racism, my students have helped me reflect on my Canadian upbringing, a place keen to think of itself as having avoided the excesses of its southern neighbor yet which has failed to reckon with its foundational cultural genocide of indigenous peoples. I am a living example of how it is possible to live in the middle of state-sponsored oppression and see nothing. The shock and fear that white settler Canadians, in particular, have expressed after the recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of children on the grounds of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan—only two of more than 139 such schools that, designed to separate families, stamp out language and cultural traditions, and punish and even murder children, operated across the country until the 1990s, the blithe days of my own very different schooling—are the response of people who for a long time studiously saw nothing. What Kluger notes about Germans after the war is true about Canadians ignoring the dispossession and cultural genocide of Indigenous people: “For you haven’t seen what you haven’t perceived and absorbed.”
It is no accident that writing by the children of Holocaust survivors has influenced today’s First Nations people on Canadian soil in coming to terms with the traumas suffered by their elders—like the abuse, murder, and cultural genocide constitutive of the residential school system. Like Jews in the immediate aftermath of the war, Indigenous people struggle to exist in a society that would prefer to think of them as extinct rather than as members of a living tradition. Conversely, the concept of cultural genocide can help Jews understand the attempted erasure of our tradition as an event comprised of more than the murder of individuals. One example of that mutual comprehension is the decision Holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger, who settled in Canada after the war, and Eugene Arcand, a survivor of the residential school system, made to tell their stories together. The Indigenous Canadian academic Lorena Sekwan Fontaine has similarly described the revelation of coming across Helen Epstein’s foundational 1970s work Children of the Holocaust, which gave her a way to understand her own life as a child of survivors of the residential schools.
Ruth Kluger knew those whites only signs included people who looked like her. But her history of persecution meant that she could only see the exclusion hidden behind them: No Blacks Allowed. Having so recently been vilified, turned into a non-person subject to violence whose life counted for nothing, Kluger knew the precariousness of belonging. How every us requires a them. Yet even after teaching her memoir for years, I still find it puzzling that she calls “the shock of recognition” in this moment “a slap in the face.” Who exactly is being slapped here? If it’s African Americans, then this seems an embarrassingly mild way of describing the hatred and violence of racism. But if it’s white Americans, that language seems differently inappropriate: it’s unclear that they would even notice this expression of Kluger’s criticism. The most interesting recipient would be Kluger herself. But then what about the “but not meant for me” addendum? I think back to the scene in Bavaria, Kluger looking at the hollow-eyed prisoners among whom she had so recently been numbered. And I remember her lesson: you don’t have to be the intended victim of violence to be hurt by it. The prisoners are emblems of Nazi violence: with the war as good as lost, they are being taken away from the front not as bargaining chips to soften the comeuppance about to fall on the perpetrators, not as the slave labor the overstretched Reich had needed, but just because they can be.
Teaching the Holocaust in the South has taught me the power of that slap. For me and my students, the task is not to pretend that we have been slapped, but to be as affronted as if we had been. We might not be Kluger, haunted by hate in Texas or conflicted in the encounter with versions of her former self in Bavaria, but we must not be the townspeople who, in the coda to that anecdote, Kluger notes “looked away” and “closed their faces so that nothing could penetrate” as even in the very last days of the war the regime persecuted Jews in their name right in front of them. Kluger concludes that we must “perform surrogate actions” on behalf of others and contest their oppression as best we can; for we are all someone else’s other. If we don’t belong to those who have no belonging there will be no belonging worthy of the name. Kluger—who overcame her aborted schooling to complete a doctorate, who taught at many of the most prestigious American universities in a forty-year academic career, who courageously insisted that her Holocaust story could not be told without the insights of feminism—never stopped fighting for the oppressed. In 2016, she spoke to German politicians on Holocaust Remembrance Day; her remarks concerned the Syrian refugees Germany had recently accepted, against the wishes of many. For Kluger, these histories had everything to do with each other. As the one-year anniversary of her death in October 2020 approaches, it will be time to observe Kluger’s yahrzeit, to recite in her name the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. Jews believe that as long as someone is alive to say Kaddish, the dead are not fully gone. Yahrzeits are usually observed for close relatives, and Kluger, who was resolutely non-religious, would have no interest in this ritual from someone she never knew. An Arkansas classroom is far from 1930s Vienna, even from 1950s Texas. But by following her example and critically reflecting on the pleasures and perils of belonging I will in some small way keep alive both her memory and her lesson that those places or times are never as far apart as we might like to think.