Category: History

Why History is Important

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane YolenI was recently browsing in a book store, and couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between a mother and her teenage daughter right next to me.  The daughter was looking for a new book to read, and her mother was offering guidance on the titles she thought would interest her daughter.

The daughter picked up Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic.

That’s an amazing book, I thought to myself.

But when the teenager showed it to her mother, the woman said, “Oh…  Um, that’s about the Holocaust.”

The daughter looked down at the book.

“Do you know about the Holocaust?” the mother asked.

“No,” the daughter said.

“You don’t want to,” the mother said.  She took the book from her daughter’s hands and placed it back on the shelf.

I was speechless.  I may still be, but I’m going to attempt to gather my thoughts and respond to this experience here because it involves both history and literature, and those are two subjects I’m pretty passionate about.

History first.  I know that most everyone has heard the saying that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”  But sadly, that’s become a white-noise aphorism in spite of that fact that it is very, very true.  Making sure that no one remembers the Holocaust is a precondition to perpetrating it, or something like it, again.

We cannot allow those events to be forgotten.  Understanding how Hitler was able to marshal an entire nation and incite such violence and hatred is critical if we are to safeguard our society against such men in the future.  Hitler’s genocidal campaign against the Jewish people and his war against Europe did not spring up overnight.  Those “final” atrocities represented the culmination of years of calculation, strategy, and propaganda.  The record of Hitler’s social, political, and military agenda offers us a thorough list or warning signs if we choose to look at it.  Averting our eyes from it because it is uncomfortable is simply not an option.  But that is exactly what the mother in the bookstore chose to do.

Night by Elie WiesellWhich brings to me literature.  One of the greatest books I read in high school was Night by Elie Wiesel.  In my English class, we were given a list of books to choose from and, unlike the mother in the book store, my parents encouraged me to read Night.  They took me to the bookstore and bought me my own copy.  Night became a defining book in my development, one of the greatest lessons I have ever received on the potential for evil in this world, and our potential to rise above it.

I must put aside the fact that a teenage girl did not know about the Holocaust (the failings of our education system could be the subject of innumerable blog posts).  What concerns me more was how her mother saw this very wide gap in her daughter’s knowledge of the world and chose not to fill it in, but to protect it.  And assuming the best intentions, that’s probably just what that mother thought she was doing – protecting her daughter.  She undoubtedly wanted to shelter her child from at least some of the ugliness and brutality that exist all around us.  But what would happen if an entire generation of children knew nothing of the Holocaust?  The irony, of course, is that The Devil’s Arithmetic is about a modern girl who is taken back in time to bear witness to the events of the Holocaust so they will not be forgotten.

Contrary to how it might sound, I am not saying that this mother should have bought Yolen’s book for her daughter.  It is a parent’s right to determine what their child is ready for.  I know I certainly would have made a different decision, like my parents did for me.  What better way to introduce the Holocaust to a teen than a YA novel written by one of our greatest living storytellers?  But that teenage girl is not my daughter.

What I am saying is this: that mother absolutely should have found a way to educate her child.  A different book perhaps, if she did not find The Devil’s Arithmetic appropriate for some reason.  But she should have done something.

I know from my own experience how enlightening books can be, especially in dealing with some of the harsher aspects of life.  The Holocaust was and is something so evil as to be incomprehensible to me, but Night helped me to at least partially grasp those events.  More importantly, Night helped me to understand what I could learn from those events without living through them, myself.  That is the power of books, and at times, the history they contain.

And don't forget the eye of newt

witch bottleI thought this was pretty interesting.  Historians have unearthed a 17th century “witch bottle” in Greenwich, England.  Apparently, you were supposed to bury these things upside down in your yard to keep those pesky neighborhood witches from putting a curse on you, your family, or your cow.  Ingredients included urine, nail clippings, scraps of metal, hair, and other assorted tidbits.  Historians have known about them from tradition and the historical record, but this one is the first to have been found intact.  I love history, the odder the better, and this certainly fits that bill.