Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Few Reflections on the 65th Anniversary of D-Day

Sixty-five years have passed since the Battle of Normandy changed the path of World War II and it is evident that the effects of the war have lingered as generations have passed, especially in terms of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust has become the backdrop for all discussions on genocide and time has shaped how the dark history of that era relates to the present. A few of Michael Kimmelman's "Abroad" columns in the New York Times have offered some insight into how it has remained an underlying influence in European culture.

For Poland, a country where anti-Semitism has persisted, the Holocaust has become ingrained in its identity, despite the now diluted Jewish population that resulted from the impact of the war. While the country has struggled with its own sentiment of victimhood, it appears the view has started to shift to an understanding that while both the Poles and the Jews suffered, it is all part of the same history. Kimmelman writes:

“Of course there are historical reasons why the perception of Poland is the way it is,” said Andrzej Folwarczny, the forum’s president. “On the other hand, Communism taught Poles that Jewish suffering was only one part of the general suffering of the Polish people, and that the first 150,000 or so victims at Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners. So after Communism, when more and more Jews came here and said, ‘Auschwitz is our place of suffering,’ suddenly these two sides, ignorant of each other’s narrative, clashed over victimhood.

“But gradually more Poles have come to realize that their history is not black and white, that we should be proud of Poles who saved Jews but also be clear that other Poles killed Jews, and that something is missing from our culture” — he was now referring to the Jewish population of three million before the war, today barely a few thousand — “for which we have responsibility.”
Kimmelman then discusses a survey in which residents living where the Warsaw Ghetto used to stand noted that Jewish history is crucial to their sense of pride and home. The full article is here.

On the other side of the spectrum, Germany, the offenders, have had to grapple with the devastation they brought and the millions of lives that were murdered under Hitler's iron fist. It has understandably remained a sensitive subject but in some respects, it seems that time has allowed some healing.

Mel Brooks' slapstick comedy, The Producers, recently arrived in Germany, prompting Kimmelman to ask, "Can Germans laugh at Hitler?" And it appears they can. If Israelis can laugh along with the Americans, then why can't they, suggests some Germans who viewed the show. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine. The challenge is maintaining a line between tasteful and offensive and as time removes us further from those lost through such horrific means, the challenge becomes greater.

I often think of another Mel Brooks' comedy, History of the World Part I, a comedy that fast-forwards through some of history's most momentous eras in true Mel Brooks fashion. One scene is a musical rendition of the Spanish Inquisition, a violent and torturous era that started during the 15th century where Spain attempted to unite itself under Catholocism after the Crusades. Thousands were tortured and killed yet in the film, it has been turned into a song and dance. And we all laughed. It was funny. But is that because we are so removed from what happened all of those years ago?

The Spanish Inquisition occured in an entirely different time period with entirely different mindsets but it helps illustrate my point just the same. I don't think there is any right or wrong answer but I do believe that at some point, and in some way, in order to accept the past there needs to be a little bit of comedic relief.

When it comes down to it, the evidence is still there. There are the remaining camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, there are survivor testimonies and there are pictures and film footage that make it hard to forget. And that is good. We can't afford to forget. A little laughter is a healthy way to move on, especially since The Producers makes a complete fool out of Hitler, helping those of us who weren't there to live through it see the complete absurdity of his ideology.

While years continue to pass even after the 65 that have already gone, the sheer magnitude of WWII has left plenty of lessons to learn in the present day.

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