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The Danger of the Symbol

I was speaking to a young woman yesterday about her upcoming 12th grade “March of the Living” trip to Poland. These trips – which my own children will be considering not too far down the road - have become an Israeli Ministry of Education-encouraged tradition.


It’s a tradition about which I am distinctively ambivalent. I understand the drive to see the sites of the Nazi genocide firsthand. I’ve done it myself - with admittedly equal amounts of horror and grim fascination. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the institutionalization of these trips is wrong on so many levels.


Here’s one problem, for starters: while many of the remaining Holocaust survivors go hungry or languish in poorly-staffed hostels, is it right to spend millions to send tens of thousands of students to parade at Auschwitz wrapped in Israeli flags? A fraction of the money spent on the March of the Living and other Holocaust-themed trips (for Knesset parliamentarians, IDF soldiers, police officers, etc.) could help ensure the comfort and health of these survivors, in their remaining years.


So, why is it that we send our kids to Auschwitz on a massive scale - but don’t encourage them to see, care for, or improve the lives of Holocaust survivors?


Facing the horror of the Holocaust three generations later, I suspect it is easier for us to strip it of corporeality. I think that on some level we prefer to regard the Holocaust’s inanimate symbols rather than its still-living face. We can see the remains of Auschwitz. We can see the piles of shoes, of eyeglasses. These are tangible, horrifying. But they are still less emotionally threatening than Moshe, the 90 year old Auschwitz survivor, with his liver-spotted hands, creaking walker, ratty slippers and worn sweater.


Dehumanizing the horror makes it more palatable, simpler to explain to a generation with no personal experience either of it or of its survivors.


But here’s the big question: does dehumanizing the horror empower it with symbolic anonymity? A symbol lacks the frailties and subtleties of a person, and is as such more malleable. It is far more difficult to use Moshe to justify ourselves in any way. Isn’t Auschwitz, as a symbol, far more effective – and potentially far more dangerous?

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