I’m working on a YA life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, and in order to make sense of him I have to give my readers the context of the shifting worlds of communism and anti-communism before during and after World War II. To help frame that discussion I looked up how many Russians (surely that means citizens of the USSR, some of whom were certainly not ethnically Russian) were killed in the war. A CUNY professor’s website listed US army deaths as 300,000 while the Soviets lost nine million soldiers and some nineteen million civilians. I knew the numbers were large — and I realize that they are complex, since, for example, Ukrainians were fighting with Nazis against the Red Army — but still, the deaths are staggering. No, they are incomprehensible. Living now we just cannot picture what it was for a nation to lose so many people. But that made me think about another crucial value of the way we teach young people about the Holocaust.
Because it took place recently, and because so many dedicated people have devoted their lives to teaching about the Holocaust in museums, memoirs, novels, history books, films, children’s drawings made in the camps there are many, many pathways into the story. We have thought a great deal about how to make this impossible story into a human story — a tragedy to mourn, a story of heroism and choice, a set of lessons to learn. We have taken the millions of deaths of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Russians, Communists and made very serious efforts to make their loss real and significant to young people. Now that has inspired some cultural and political controversy, where some want to call the 13 million Africans taken in Atlantic slavery a black holocaust, or the 90% death rate of an unknown number of original Americans the worst case of genocide in human history. But I think the focus on the Holocuast actually creates the reverse opportunity — not envy and competition of whose tragedy was worst, but entry.
Because we have worked hard on teaching the Holocaust, we can begin to reach young people — to turn numbers into lives that matter. We simply do not have the same resources for the Soviet dead, or the Atlantic slave trade, or, certainly the Native Americans — where we do not even know how many people died, much less how to describe them as individuals. But what we can do is use the story we have begun to figure how to tell as an entry, as an example of what strings of zeros mean in human terms. We can use the Holocaust not only as a story of those particular victims, but of the victims of mass death — by going into this one story so carefully we can, then, when we teach these other examples, call on the experiences students have already had. They can then look for individual lives to research, to find human faces in the other tragedies, as we teach them to do for the Holocaust. Otherwise we are left with giving them incomprehsible numbers just when we need to engage them in the drama and tragedy of human history.