I went through a Holocaust period in adolescence. I read plays on the Holocaust, survivors’ accounts, novels, historical treatises, anything I could find. And ultimately, in eighth grade, I wrote a short story about a reluctant soldier who is assigned to a concentration camp, and his conflicted descent into brutality. My teacher entered the story in the Holocaust competition at Brookdale Community College, and it won for my age group. I have never read it again. But I remember writing it, and the rage it took to brutalize another human being on paper. I have wondered if the adults who read that story worried for me.
We lived in Mainz, Germany when I was a kid. My parents took my brother and me to Dachau when I was four or five. Here’s what I remember: the fence is made of iron in the shape of twisted bodies; the museum had a photograph of an old woman that I couldn’t stop looking at — she may have been naked because all I remember are her ribs and her drowning eyes. The ovens smelled of barn. We saw them. The ovens. We stood there and I asked why they were outside, and my mother told me. She explained why. And because I was a child, I kept asking. They put people into the ovens? They put people into them?
I think Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay is one of the most important books ever written. Her Hunger Games series, in the Post-9/11, soldiers raping children with machetes, Abu Ghraib, war tribunal world, tackles the warrior’s tale in unprecedented ways. It’s marketed for teens, but this is a series we should all read and discuss. Because the savage is barely contained much of the time. Because anger sets the world alight. Because our memories are faulty, and we want to believe these things can’t happen. Not here, not to us. But they’ve never stopped happening to someone somewhere. There can be no progress without memory.