Several weeks ago, at the home of some new acquaintances in Berlin, a kind and amiable family who had invited us over for Sunday dinner, there arose the subject of their adolescent son's and his schoolmates' "Holocaust fatigue"--their sense of having the Holocaust perpetually rammed down their throats by teachers and administrators at every turn. He was tired, the son said, of hearing so much about the Holocaust, a period in Germany's history during which he was not even alive, and for which, by definition, he and his generation could shoulder no responsibility.
I commiserated with him, saying that I could understand his plight--one shared, in fact, by many Americans who feel they bear no blame for the historical fact of slavery or for the unforgivable mistreatment and displacement of Native Americans. So I was willing, at least for a while, to accept at face value the claim of Holocaust fatigue--until, that is, I began to do a bit of freelance investigating of my own in connection with a course on contemporary Jewish-American literature that I teach at the Free University of Berlin.
What I found was that not a single German student in the class of some 20, and nearly as many auditors--bright, sensitive people one and all--had read that most fundamental memoir of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel's Night. None, either, had read Art Spiegelman's widely translated and highly accessible comic memoir, Maus. And this is a group of students who, by the mere fact of signing up for class, would seem to have some prior knowledge of, or interest in, the subject of the Holocaust and its relations. When I mentioned the name of Julius Streicher--the infamous SS henchman and sadist who was an essential spirit behind Kristallnacht and a ubiquitous presence in Nazi attacks on Jews and Jewish businesses--I was met by stares so blank and unknowing that I might as well have been invoking the name of some obscure Romanian count. Not even the names of several Woody Allen movies--as palatable and "funny" an example of the Holocaust's lingering shadow as one could hope for--met with a knowing response. Imre Kertesz? Tadeusz Borowski? Victor Klemper? Paul Celan? Hardly a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned their names.
On the other hand, those Germans--such as the retired engineer who recently followed me through the streets of Nuremberg wanting to learn more about my family's experiences--who actually know something about the Holocaust seem virtually immune from Holocaust fatigue. They realize, perhaps that the cure for fatigue is not blindness but curiosity. They read, ask questions, search for ways not to reenact their nation's dark past in their own lives. They do not nitpick about the design of various proposed Holocaust memorials.
"Fatigue" is defined by my dictionary as "the temporary inability to respond to a situation or perform a function because of overexposure ... " implying that to be fatigued one must have been abundantly exposed to something. But many of those prone to Holocaust fatigue--much like those who suffer from its sibling malady, compassion fatigue, in the U.S.--tend to be those with a self-serving interest in being tired rather than a moral stake in being curious--in other words, those whose sense of fatigue has little to do with actual knowledge.
In Germany, those who, along with the writer Martin Walzer, suffer from the slings and arrows of overexposure to the Holocaust seem to be those who know, and wish to know, virtually nothing of it--or of the more than 5,000 years of Jewish history that preceded it. By comparison with such a self-serving posture of saturation, I find the position recently taken by Berlin's Mayor Eberhard Diepken infused with a certain refreshing honesty. Diepken, who was opposed from the start to building the Holocaust Memorial in downtown Berlin, simply stayed away from the recent dedication ceremonies. Not an admirable stance, perhaps, but at least not a hypocritical one.
I too, quite frankly, feel rather "fatigued" by the Holocaust, though not nearly as "fatigued" as were the millions who perished in it or the millions more whose lives and families it permanently devastated. I am fatigued--as are some truly knowing Germans--by a single-minded dwelling on its dark history and symbolic remembrance sites, which, as the writer Jane Kramer so accurately put it, "take memory and deposit it, so to speak, in the landscape, where it can be visited at appropriate ceremonial moments, but where it does not interfere unduly with the business of life at hand." Without some positive vision--some deep commitment to "un-Holocausting" the future--there is little to be gained from the guilt- and victim-producing psychology that mere monuments can both ratify and create.
But, as I survey the scene of the tired and saturated all around me, I begin to feel as if I may be coming down with a new malady all my own. Call it "fatigue fatigue" if you wish, or merely a sense of feeling rather fed up.
Poet Michael Blumenthal, senior Fulbright fellow at the Free University of Berlin, is the author of When History Enters the House: Essays From Central Europe