Three years ago, my son Jesse's seventh grade teacher assigned the class The Diary of Anne Frank.
"What did you think?" I asked when he'd finished.
"Boring," he said. "Really, really boring. I thought it would never end."
I should have known. I had seen him sprawled across his bed, reading fitfully between breaks to check Facebook. But Anne Frank's diary had a major affect on own my adolescence in the 1970s -- and we're Jewish, for Heaven's sake. I couldn't imagine that it didn't touch him at all.
"Didn't you feel for Anne and her family?" I asked.
"There's nothing to feel," he replied. "They're just sitting in an attic for the whole book, and then it ends."
Why did I feel something while he didn't?
How we respond to Holocaust literature, I realize now, depends a lot on the times in which we read it. My son's connection to World War II in 2010 was very different from mine in 1975 or my parents' in the 1950s. Jesse's Anne Frank is not my Anne Frank, and my Anne Frank is not my parents'.
My mother tells me that, when she was growing up in Memphis after the war ended, no one mentioned the Holocaust. "I think that my parents felt that talking about it made us more vulnerable," she says. My grandparents' generation tried to believe that the devastation in Europe was something that "happened over there and could never happen to us." I am sure that there are Jewish families who talked about the war a lot, but neither of my parents ever heard such conversations. "I remember people saying, 'Never again,'" my father tells me, but the phrase floated through the air, untethered to specific details of Nazi oppression. He didn't know exactly what it was that could never happen again. Five, ten, 15 years after an attempt at total annhilation of the Jews, silence was my Jewish-American grandparents' way of trying to feel secure. Anne Frank first became available in the United States in the 1950s, but my parents never read it in their adolescence.
Twenty years later, in the 1970s, my view of what happened during World War II was molded by Mr. Dubin, my seventh grade religious school teacher at Temple Israel in Memphis. In his early thirties and George Harrison-cool, he sported a long moustache and bell-bottom jeans. We'd been hearing about Mr. Dubin since fifth grade, and we were half in love with him before we even sat down at our desks. I can't remember exactly how he introduced the film he showed us, but I do remember the nervousness I felt when he closed the classroom door, pulled down the blinds and switched on the projector.
I don't need to describe the movie itself. You've probably seen it, or something like it --Auschwitz at liberation, striped pyjamas, alive-looking dead people and dead-looking live ones. The images forced us to recognize the worst that humans can do to each other. Afterwards, Mr. Dubin led us from shattered silence through muted discussion. When I picked up The Diary of Anne Frank a few months later, I felt that I was fulfilling a duty. I held Anne's story close because she wasn't around to do it herself. I realize now that, compared to the silence that surrounded my parents, there was something radical in Mr. Dubin's insistence that my generation read books like Anne Frank, watch films about Auschwitz, and, most important, speak out about what happened then.
These days, discussion of the Holocaust has become institutionalized within the middle school curriculum, and it should be. The challenge to parents and educators today, though, is not so much in finding a way to speak about the unspeakable as it is in finding a way to make the unspeakable seem pertinent. In his classic autobiographical novel Night, Elie Wiesel described his arrival at a concentration camp: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night... that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed." These simple words have caused earlier generations to shudder and weep, and there are probably young people today who shudder and weep as well. I imagine, though, that many respond as my son did. He didn't give Night any more stars than he gave Anne Frank.
It's too easy to mistake this lack of interest for callousness, however. The truth is that older generations bring something to these books that younger ones don't possess. Elie Wiesel's novel, like Anne Frank's diary, has a plainness to its prose. Neither is great literature. They lack the descriptive style that makes a scene come alive. For some, that simplicity magnifies the power. When Wiesel writes about the sudden separation of families at Auschwitz -- "that was the moment when I left my mother" -- I can automatically conjure the sad-eyed Holocaust survivors I met during my childhood and think of the gaping holes where their families used to be. Their presence in my life gives Wiesel's words the horrifying weight of reality. Few young peoople today, though, have direct experience with Holocaust survivors to bring to a book like Wiesel's or Frank's. My son was born in 1997. The Holocaust is the distant past for him, as long ago as World War I is for me.
It's not that young people today can't be touched by what happened during World War II, but it may take a more literary hand to touch them. And such books exist. Markus Zusack's The Book Thief, Imre Kertesz' Fatelessness, and Art Spiegelman's Maus, for instance, offer innovative, honest, wrenching, witty (yes, oddly, witty) accounts of the Nazi era. In short, they have a style that engages readers -- young readers, included -- in an often-exhilarating artistic experience. My teenage niece called The Book Thief "the best book ever."
A year or so ago, I watched Jesse race through a copy of Maus, Spiegelman's graphic novel based on his own family story. The first scene takes place in Regal Park, New York, in 1958, when a group of boys abandon the narrator, Artie, on the sidewalk when his skate comes loose. When Artie returns home, sniffing away his tears, he tells his father that his friends have deserted him. Not only is Artie's father unsympathetic; he doesn't even define "friend" in the same way as his son does. "Friends? Your friends?" he scoffs. "If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week....Then you could see what it is, friends!" Thus begins the story of how Artie's father, a Jew drawn as a mouse, managed to survive the war years in a world of Nazis, drawn as cats.
This more recent generation of Holocaust books is quite different from the earnest, plain-spoken narratives of earlier decades. Maus unfolds as a comicbook tale about mice and cats; The Book Thief mixes its story of Nazi atrocity with moments of adventure; and the feckless teenage narrator of Fatelessness is often astonishingly dopey and dense. Far from minimizing the Holocaust, however, these books find new ways to ignite our sense of sorrow and horror. And, as long as we have books that can re-animate a time that, for many readers, has calcified into distant history, who needs Anne Frank?
Dana Sachs is the author of several books, including the new novel The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. You can follow her on Facebook at Dana Sachs Books.