I was 10 when I read my first Holocaust book. It was a reading day in my 4th grade classroom. Sifting through stacks of paper, I landed on a small, dark-colored chapter book. The cover was a deep red, with a black and white photo torn to pieces on the cover. The young girl, about my age in the photo, was looking right at the camera. The title: The Big Lie.
There are few things more subjective than art. Art, by definition, is something created. It is fluid. It’s impact on the viewer should be effortless, and it is almost always ambiguous; one of the greatest gifts art leaves us with is the imprint of introspection. Words are one of the most visceral of these art forms, and their influence on the reader has the ability to last a lifetime.
Of course, as a young, Jewish girl, I knew what the Holocaust was. I knew the general statistics of numbers and the groups afflicted. I knew the names. But my knowledge existed in a vacuum, the vague sense of, This is a terrible thing, with no way of truly rooting myself to the information. I think, for many people, art is what connects us to the world.
It’s important to remember that the craft of words is just as tangible of an art form as a Van Gogh, and, just like the two dimensional, the lasting impact of art is subjective for every viewer.
Art has a funny way of awakening something in you. Years later, I remember asking some of my friends from camp when they first started really learning about the Holocaust. “Well, I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas…” “My librarian showed me the book Number the Stars…” “I remember being haunted by The Devil’s Arithmetic…” And on, and on, and on the stories continued, always the same pattern. A children’s book, introduced in formative years, that helped bridge the gap of understanding.
What is it about a story that molds the mind? Why does a statistic in a textbook read differently after you’ve read it in first person perspective?
As a writer, it always felt really important to me to have my work mean something to someone. I was always searching for impact, always looking for the reason to continue telling the story. But writing doesn’t work like that. You can’t impart a lesson on someone. What the reader takes away is up to them. All you can do, as an author, is tell your version of the truth in its most authentic form. Perhaps that’s why, years later, these books still haunt us: They never existed to teach us a lesson. They only existed as the truest versions of the authors’ truth. There is something truly intimate about telling that kind of story.
It is easier to understand tragedy through art. Art speaks to us, not at us. It humanizes tragedy. It provides faces and language where before there were numbers and lifeless facts.
There’s a reason your high school history professor shows the class Schindler’s List. There’s a reason your freshman classroom reads The Book Thief. In order for history not to repeat itself, we need to understand it. In order to understand it, we need to connect with it. In order to connect with it, we need art.
There’s also something to be said for words filling voids in our comprehension. History books give us a very dry understanding of the truth, when, ultimately, there is a degree of separation between truth and fact. Facts are objective - there is no gray area. Everyone knows the number 6 million, but it’s just that at first: a number on a page. Write it out, type it out, it’s just digits and decimals. “Truth” is when you see the number in faces, in separation, in loss. Quantifying a number with a feeling is something that can only be done through the art of storytelling.
Art grants perspective.
Because the effects of art inspire introspection, these pieces of media tend to resonate with us long after they’re out of view. A part of me will always be the 10-year-old in the beanbag chair, placing faces to numbers for the first time in my life. And that’s good. Words are art in motion. They help connect us. They humanize us. They paint their own pictures.