Readers may be familiar with recent comments made by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.). She talked about having a “calming feeling” whenever she thinks of the Palestinians creating a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust, and during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers this week, she suggested her comments were taken out of context by “racist idiots” at a fourth-grade level.
My reaction might not be what you were expecting. It is not a message about what constitutes racism or even about historical inaccuracies; it is a message about memoirs, not about politics or Tlaib’s own personal experience. The central problem with Holocaust references is that the more talking-point centered they become, the farther away we get from the actual horrific event over 75 years ago. Those of us who were not Holocaust survivors simply cannot imagine the horror, or why, for that matter, it was essential that a Jewish state be created in the aftermath of the tragedy so that it could never happen again.
I am not focused on the question of whether Palestinian leader Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was actually an ally of Adolf Hitler’s back in 1941, or how pro-Nazi the Palestinians were. Hitler had many allies and even more henchmen. What I am focused on as a physician is the human tendency to heal memory over time. This is understandable, and it helps with survival. But in this particular case, we must resist the tendency to do it lest the importance and significance of this horrific memory is lost.
The chemist-turned-novelist, Primo Levi, from Turin, Italy, was a survivor of Auschwitz. And he provides the best treatment for this current talking-point condition of denial and mudslinging. His description of spending entire days in the frozen Auschwitz field with his head down, searching for the tiniest crumb or piece of metal he might trade for food or any other clue to survival that might get him to another day is the best way we have right now to learn the lesson we need to learn. Consider the following poem from his book This is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz):
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.
From the grave, this is Primo Levi’s message to all Holocaust deniers and minimizers, as well as to those who would use it to make political points. My treatment for Congresswoman Tlaib’s condition is to read this deeply moving poem over and over as I do, and imagine she is living (and dying) under these conditions. Everyone should read this book. It is not just a palpable description, it is a warning to all lest we forget. Levi gives us a historical account that brings the horror of the Holocaust back to life. Maybe if she read it, Rashida Tlaib would stop using the word “comfort” or speaking down to those who took issue with her comments.