Incredibly, it wasn’t until I was 19 that I learned that there had been a Holocaust. My hyper-assimilated, New England Jewish family and friends looked only to the present and future. We focused on the polio vaccine that promised to banish the iron lungs that had been our childhood terror. We trusted in the United Nations, whose gleaming buildings my father took me to see when they were brand-new, and from which I came away with hopeful admiration—mixed, however, with a vague sense, which I couldn’t have put into words then, that perhaps an enterprise housed in architecture so grandiosely superhuman, so showy but flimsy, and so modernistically disdainful of the past, might be too utopian to ensure the world peace it envisioned. I know that I read The Diary of Anne Frank back then, but I was probably too young to identify with a girl, so it made no impression.
But as a college freshman, I went to see a movie that had as its unannounced co-feature Alain Resnais’s spare, half-hour documentary Night and Fog, made up of photographs and film clips of the Nazi death camps. Utterly unprepared and unsuspecting, I came abruptly face-to-face with what had actually happened in the very recent past—indeed, was still happening even in the first months of my own life. I came out of the Thalia theater weeping like a baby, forever changed. True, as I learned later, the movie never uttered the word Jew, and the films that General Eisenhower ordered to be made of the liberated camps, so that people would believe the otherwise incredible, were still more gruesome. No matter. I was never the same.
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