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What did I know about the Holocaust, and when did I know it?
As a baby boomer growing up in the Midwest in the fifties and sixties attending public schools, I knew as much as the guy at the next desk—nothing. There was no mention of the Holocaust in our textbooks, nor do I remember any teacher telling us about it. This may seem incredible to anyone, say, thirty years old who was in middle school in 1993 when Schindler's List debuted and the U.S. Holocaust Museum opened in Washington, D.C. That student may even have met one of the many Holocaust survivors who regularly visit schools to share their stories.
But in the context of 1961 when I was in sixth grade—the level that Holocaust education commonly begins today—the invisibility of the Holocaust was hardly surprising. In fact, any mention of it by Mr. Mize, my teacher at Rogers Elementary in Bloomington, Indiana, would have been startling—wildly out of sync with mainstream America where "Holocaust" would not be a household word for another decade.
Nineteen sixty-one was still early dawn of Holocaust awareness in America, even though sixteen years had passed since GIs entered the gates of the Dachau concentration camp populated by corpses and legions of hollow-eyed walking dead—newsreel moments imprinted indelibly on the American mind. The New York Times did not use "holocaust" to describe the murder of Jews until May 1959 in a story about dedication of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. The first graduate seminar on the Holocaust in the U.S. was at Emory College in 1959–60. Night, Elie Wiesel's transformative memoir, was published in the U.S. in 1960 but sold only a few copies that first year. American TV had extensive coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, and Judgment at Nuremberg, starring Spencer Tracy, was released that year and won two Academy Awards.
I believe I speak for my immediate twelve-year-old peers at the time in admitting that I did not watch the Eichmann trial or go to see Judgment at Nuremberg. My favorite movie that year was The Absent-Minded Professor in which Fred MacMurray invented an anti-gravity goop called Flubber that made his old jalopy fly and let the vertically challenged slam-dunk a basketball. I saw it twice. Above all, I remember 1961 as the year Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth's record of sixty home runs in a season. Holocaust awareness was still a long way down the road and around the bend for my friends and me.
You might think it would have been different for me since my mother was a Holocaust survivor—the only one on the block!—but she did not share that part of her life with me and my younger brother, Bill, deciding it was "too cruel" to burden young children with such information. My information was sketchy. All I knew was that my mother had been caught up in the war and had somehow made it to America. Had we gone to synagogue and been surrounded by Jews with their own survivor stories, it would have been impossible for my mother to keep her secret. But ours was a secular home, my mother a non-observant Jew, my father a lapsed Roman Catholic from Virginia. Sunday the rabbi stayed home, and so did the Dawsons.
On the other hand, my mother made no secret of the fact that she was Russian. She was fiercely proud of her heritage, and made it known often in the kitchen by fixing borscht and other traditional meals, and she spoke Russian to me from birth. I was bilingual until age seven when I became aware of the childhood pitfalls of being "different" and begged her to stop speaking Russian to me around my friends. Unfortunately, she caved to my demand, and we now agree it was a bad decision in the long run. Fluent Russian would have satisfied my college language requirement the easy way and broadened career choices later. What was coming naturally to me in childhood, when the mind is at its ripest to absorb new languages, is nearly impossible for the ossifying adult mind short of a total immersion program. But my aversion to Russian was understandable at the time. It was the 1950s, the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. With people checking under their beds for Communists each night, it was not the best time for a kid in the Indiana heartland to be caught speaking the language of America's mortal enemy.
I tell the story of how I became monolingual because it helps explain, in part, why America—Main Street and Washington—was slow to make the Holocaust a focus of our national conversation and education. "Better dead than Red!" went the McCarthyite cry. Only a decade after liberation of the death camps, America was more obsessed with the Red than the dead. In paranoia over the perceived threat from our recent ally, the actual horrific crimes of our recent enemy were, if not exactly forgotten, placed on a distant back burner of benign neglect.
Hardball geopolitics clearly was at play. The U.S. government was anxious about offending West Germany, its new ally against the evil empire in Moscow. Intense lobbying by West German government and church officials led to reduced sentences and early freedom for many officers of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads responsible for murdering over a million Ukrainian Jews. At Nuremberg in 1948, the tribunal sentenced 14 Einsatzgruppen functionaries and field commanders to death, two to life sentences, and five to prison terms of 10 to 20 years.
Under the Nuremberg Charter, sentence reduction was the "sole prerogative" of the American Military Governor for Germany, John McCloy, former Assistant Secretary of War, who replaced General Lucius Clay in 1950. Clay had affirmed the death sentences and stoutly rebuffed all appeals, but McCloy, eager to nurture U.S.-German solidarity for the Cold War, succumbed to the deluge of demands for clemency and established an Advisory Group to review all the sentences. Subsequently, four of the convicted killers were hanged at Landsberg Prison near Munich in 1951. By 1958 all the rest, including nine men originally sentenced to death, had been set free.
Such sweeping absolution for perpetrators of the crime induces a sort of philosophical vertigo. It is difficult to put any name on this head-spinning nullification of justice other than "Holocaust denial"—perpetrated, incredibly, by representatives of the same country that went to war to stop the criminal in chief. Is it any wonder, then, that it was possible—in fact more than likely—to grow up in the American heartland in the 1950s and '60s and know nothing of the Holocaust?
That's the way my mother wanted it, of course—my innocence preserved—and the world cooperated by providing me with no information. Yes, I knew who Hitler was—who didn't?—but only from capsule descriptions in grade-school texts and as the slightly ridiculous figure in grainy newsreel footage—a ranting, fist-pumping, bug-eyed lunatic who didn't know when to stop. I also knew that Hitler killed many Jews, but more as collateral damage, it seemed, than by design.
In the absence of more and better information, my unfortunate impression of Hitler as cartoonish was reinforced by Hogan's Heroes, a TV sitcom which hilariously satirized Nazis. Colonel Klink, the buffoonish commander of the prisoner-of-war camp, was played by Werner Klemperer, who only a few years earlier had given a fine dramatic performance as a remorseless defendant in Judgment at Nuremberg. John Banner played Sergeant Schultz, the genial, strudel-fed, risk-averse guard who repeatedly claimed, "I know nothing—nothing." Just like me!
It was about the time Hogan's Heroes came on the air in 1965 that I became fully aware that I was Jewish. Like the Holocaust, it may seem incredible that I would not have this crucial data. How could this be? Well, not only did we not go to church or synagogue, religion was not discussed at the dinner table. It was not verboten, just irrelevant—not as interesting to me as sports, politics, food, and the doings at the Indiana University School of Music where my mother, a pianist, and my father, a violist, were on the faculty. I also don't recall religion being discussed outside the home—being asked by virtual strangers which church I attended, which today often comes right after "hello." In those days people's religion (or lack of it) was their own business. So, I had no particular reason to consider my religious or ethnic identity. I thought of myself as half Russian, half Virginian, and 100% Hoosier.
I say that as a teenager I became "fully aware" of being Jewish because I had been dimly aware of it for many years. Except for religion, ours was culturally a very Jewish home, filled with Jewish food, Jewish humor. Most of my parents' friends, colleagues on the music faculty, were Jewish. It was a matter of putting two and two and two together—but who was counting? I don't remember precisely when and how I learned that I was officially Jewish—there was no dramatic come-to-Jesus talk with my mother—but I considered it a diversity upgrade. No offense to my father's English-Scotch ancestry, but Russian Jewish, with a dollop of Mongolian, added zest and exotic flair missing from the monochrome (yawn) Dawson line.
The revelation did not kindle a religious awakening for me or prompt questions that might have led to discovering my mother's great untold story. Most children, at some point, would wonder why their mother had never spoken of her own parents. Why were there no photos? Why no stories from her childhood? I never thought to ask my mother about her parents—my phantom grandparents—perhaps because my paternal grandparents had never been part of our lives either. My father's dad died when he was thirteen; his mother when I was very young. The absence of grandparents seemed normal.
My father, David, knew my mother's story before he met her, from his brother, Larry, an Army lieutenant who discovered her and Frina in the displaced-persons camp he ran near Munich after the war. Beguiled by their musical gifts and fiery personalities, he pulled strings to bring them to America. Going through my mother's papers for Hiding in the Spotlight, I found letters from Larry to my father, and a Western Union telegram alerting him to the girls' arrival in New York in May 1946. I also found the copy of an affidavit, "Janna Dawson's story as told to David Dawson," submitted to a reparations board which awarded each sister $800, an amount so slight and nonsensical that it illustrates the notion of incalculable loss. I'm confident that my father would have confided my mother's story had I asked, but I never did while living under their roof. I was twenty-five—working in Florida, a new husband and father—when he died in Bloomington at the age of sixty-two of cigarette-induced emphysema, without our ever speaking of the subject.
I might never have learned my mother's story if not for Irwin Segelstein. It was Segelstein, head programmer for NBC in the 1970s, who had the idea for a miniseries about the Holocaust, which seemed a farfetched, costly gamble. From the early 1950s, when a camp survivor appeared on the hugely popular reality series This Is Your Life, prime time was peppered with teleplays and episodes of series such as The Twilight Zone which used Holocaust themes as background and allegory, but never explained what happened outright. Nine and a half hours of straight, unfiltered Holocaust four nights in a row was quite another thing. However, in those pre-cable days the three networks had a monopoly on viewers and money to burn, so NBC rolled the dice—and won, drawing an estimated 120 million viewers.
Holocaust followed the intersecting destinies of two fictional families, one German Jewish, the other German gentile with Nazi sympathies, against the backdrop of the unfolding cataclysm. As the first major pop-culture treatment of the Holocaust—it was the miniseries genre that put the pop in pop culture—Holocaust was not just a big TV event but a significant social and cultural milestone, like the Roots miniseries the year before.
At the time, April 1978, I was back in Bloomington working as a feature writer at The Herald-Telephone, eternally in search of fodder. Reading the massive hype surrounding the upcoming miniseries, I knew there was a story in there for me—somewhere. Perhaps my mother had some anecdotes from her wartime experience that I could spin into a piece. I phoned her in Milwaukee, where she had moved after my father's death to join the music faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Oblivious to television and pop culture, she was predictably unaware of the miniseries. I described it and asked if she could recount her own experience, hoping for enough relevant scraps to build a feature.
What followed was the most astonishing hour of my life as my mother told me, for the first time, her miraculous story of escape and survival. Not the most proficient typist, my fingers flew erratically across the keyboard, my crooked neck aching from holding the receiver to my shoulder, my mind struggling to wrap itself around the idea that it was my mother at the center of this harrowing fairy tale, improbable even by Holocaust standards. My story began with Dmitri Arshansky, my maternal grandfather, bartering for his daughter's life.
A gold watch, the turn of a soldier's head, and she was gone. Zhanna Arshanskaya, fourteen years old, the coat off her father's back to resist the Russian winter, bolted from the sad column of marching Jews and disappeared into the landscape.
Something my mother said in the interview supplied the headline for the front-page story: "My father didn't think anything could be so savage."
My story ran the week Holocaust aired. Writing in Time magazine, critic Frank Rich called the miniseries "an uncommonly valuable achievement ... likely to awaken more consciences to the horrors of the Holocaust than any single work since Anne Frank's diary nearly three decades ago."
He was correct. Holocaust proved to be a powerful catalyst in America for adding the Holocaust to secondary school textbooks, and in West Germany—where it drew enormous ratings—the miniseries triggered the first national conversation about the Holocaust since the end of the war, forcing Germans to confront pent-up demons and repressed guilt.
The impact was less profound for me and, as far as I could tell, my mother. There was no change in our relationship, which consisted of weekly phone calls and occasional trips to her home in Atlanta, where she moved in 1981. From time to time in ensuing years, as a columnist and later a TV critic, I would call and do a brief interview for a piece I was writing. In 1980, I spoke to her about Playing for Time, a CBS movie based on the true story of a prisoner who played in a band at Auschwitz—a story similar to her own. Just like two years earlier when she had told me her story for the first time, her recounting was vivid, colorful, and detailed, but not emotional—for either of us. Not once had she paused, unable to go on. Nor had I.
Perhaps this steely ability to maintain focus, to block out all intervening thoughts and feelings, simply was the discipline of an artist trained to keep going no matter what—as Dmitri Arshansky had trained his daughter, having six-year-old Zhanna practice in a darkened room so she would learn to play without looking at the piano keys. Or perhaps her eerie equanimity when we spoke of the past was something else altogether, akin to my own.
Not until after Hiding in the Spotlight was published in 2009 did I become aware of an entire genre of literature which had sprung up over the previous two decades or so—memoirs by people like me, children of Holocaust survivors. They even had a collective name, Second Generation Survivors. It turned out there were Second Generation clubs and associations everywhere, yet somehow they had escaped my notice.
Not long after my book came out, I attended a reading at the Holocaust Center in Maitland, a suburb of Orlando, by Alan Berger, a Holocaust scholar at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. We traded books. I gave him Hiding in the Spotlight, he signed a copy of Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of Holocaust Survivors & Perpetrators, a collection of essays he edited with his wife, Naomi. It was my first exposure to this discrete universe of memory and suffering, and it left me feeling very much the outsider.
Excerpted from Judgment Before Nuremberg by Greg Dawson. Copyright © 2012 Greg Dawson. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Posted March 28, 2012
After reading Mr.Dawson's first book, "Hiding in the Spotlight", I was eager to read his new release. It did not disappoint. He has an easy writing style although the topic covered was sometimes difficult to read. I have read other books on the Holocaust but I myself was not aware of the horrors inflicted on the Jews of Kharkov, Ukraine nor was I aware of what transpired in the Ukraine. This book should be read by anyone interested in what really happened under Hitler. His mother deserves a big thank you for reliving her terrible experiences during the war. If you like history with real life experiences thrown in, you will enjoy reading this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.