I once met a woman whose job it had been to remove gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. She was a small person with short dark hair and an accent, a younger friend of my grandmother, and it was by that gruesome occupation that she had survived the concentration camps. I couldn’t shake the awful image of it. I was eleven or twelve at the time; she must have been a girl about my own age then, turning over corpses with a pair of pliers in her hand.
My son worships Charlie Chaplin. But he wasn’t sure, at seven years old, that The Great Dictator was a film he could appreciate. I had explained to him that it satirized Adolf Hitler, a very bad man, and Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, which (I reminded him) two of his great-grandfathers had fought in. “Maybe I should be a little older before I see it,” he said. But we started the movie and by the time we reached Adenoid Hynkel’s macaronic speech under the banner of the “double cross” any hesitation had been conquered by hilarity.
He was baffled and disturbed, however, by the scenes in the ghetto when storm troopers marched through the streets painting ‘JEW’ on the windows. They bullied shopkeepers and women and pushed and threatened Chaplin himself, in his role as the unnamed Jewish barber. Why are they all being so terrible? he wanted to know.
I gave what could only feel like a weak explanation. How, I wondered, does one go about introducing the idea of the Holocaust to a seven year old? He knows something about the history of slavery in the United States, about President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the American Civil War. But these things must seem far away compared to the horrible conflict that touched, one way or another, the lives of his parents’ own grandfathers.
We want to protect our children from damaging knowledge. We also want them to understand the kind of world they live in. The danger of the first is that we leave them defenseless in their innocence. The danger of the second is that their souls are poisoned and they surrender later in life to that despairing notion Moses Herzog rails against in Bellow’s novel, that “the truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion.”
My grandmother’s friend never talked to children about the war, but she silently showed me the fading blue numbers the Nazi jailers had tattooed on her arm. It’s less and less likely my children will ever meet survivors of the death camps. But if there is a way of introducing the Holocaust to a child without at the same time depriving him of natural hope, perhaps Chaplin’s movie is it. George Santayana wrote that “between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition.” Chaplin, I think, is proof of that.