History is not a Strong Point with the Young in America
History is not a Strong Point with the Young in America

Novelists must learn to deal with rejection. We get rejected all the time and receive replies like “This does not fit in with our current editorial needs.” But when a publisher turns down a novel because “I found that I had to suspend disbelief,” as one of them told my literary agent, that is another thing.

For years I had an idea – a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. The man would be 100 years old. He would have been a child survivor, so after working out the details and doing the math, I pegged his birth to the year 1939. When he is 100 years old we are in 2039, the near future, and that’s when my story in The Last Witness takes place. But there’s a hook. My character is living at a time when knowledge of the Holocaust is pretty meager, and that was the problem this publisher had; he couldn’t buy my premise that one generation from now ignorance of the Holocaust would be widespread.

The novel includes flashbacks about my survivor as a hidden child in a Jewish ghetto, and then being discovered and winding up at Auschwitz with his family. He is the only one who gets out.

Edmund Burke said those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, and this is what is so frightening about the current generation. Indeed, their lack of knowledge about times past is an epidemic of dire proportions.

Poll after poll has shown that young people are abysmally ignorant where history is concerned.

I have seen this first-hand. I used to teach writing and journalism to college students; there were those right out of high school and those with university degrees. One thing I learned early on was that history is not a forte with the young, and unless they had attended religious school as children, they also weren’t up to snuff on the most basic biblical analogies. It meant no jokes about living as long as Methuselah. No references to the One student said that “thousands” of Jews had been killed in the Holocaust, and another said that while he’s heard of the Holocaust, he couldn’t explain it.
parting of the Red Sea. Nothing about David and Goliath or the Three Wise Men.

Have you ever played Trivial Pursuit with someone under 35 and asked questions in the History category? It’s incredible what they don’t know.

After getting the rejection from that publisher, I decided to produce a video. We went out to ask university students in Toronto, where I live, what they know about the Holocaust.

“When did the Holocaust take place?” I asked the first two I encountered.

The two girls stared at each other. Hmm. One of them said, “Nineteen-eighty …” but she wasn’t sure. Then her friend said it wasn’t the 1980s. They looked at each other again. “Nineteen-forty?” they said as one voice.

I asked the next pair, a young man and woman, if they have ever heard of The Final Solution. No they hadn’t. As it turned out, they weren’t up to snuff on D-Day, the Beaches of Normandy, FDR or Churchill either.

Not one student I spoke to that afternoon could tell me who Josef Mengele was. One student said that “thousands” of Jews had been killed in the Holocaust, and another said that while he’s heard of the Holocaust, he couldn’t explain it.

I don’t blame the students for knowing so little about history. When I was their age I might have been in the same boat, except history was compulsory then. But that isn’t the case today, which is why these students were scratching their heads searching for a tidbit of information about the Holocaust or Churchill.

The Last Witness is fiction, but a lot of research went into it. I met with former child survivors and Sir Martin Gilbert, the eminent historian and master chronicler of the Holocaust who passed away recently. Gilbert and all those former child survivors had no trouble accepting my premise that knowledge of the Holocaust is lagging and will only get worse in the future.

Should we be concerned? Yes. Today we have a rising Cold War with Russia and a cauldron in the Middle East, never mind far-right political parties getting scary levels of support in many European countries. Hate seems to be everywhere.

With all this in mind, I recently took out a book from the library – Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment by respected journalist J. J. Goldberg. The book was a thoughtful, well-researched exploration of the history of Jews in America, the Israel lobby, and what impact Jews may have in certain areas. Goldberg, of course, is Jewish himself. But when I got home I saw, scribbled in pencil on the first blank page just inside the cover, this handwritten message:

‘We hate jews because we know that judaism is not simply another religion but the ideology of class/racial exclusivity apartheid and supremacism and they succeed in imposing their will on the rest of us. Simply put we hate jews because jews hate and control us.’

I was mortified. The message wasn’t signed – bigots are not known for their courage – and I’m sure whoever wrote it didn’t read the book. What is likely is that the person saw the title Jewish Power and thought this was about Jews taking over the world – the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a myth created in Russia in 1903 and which to this day seeps into the consciousness of those who think they have it all figured out.

After finishing the book, I returned to the library and told the librarian there was an offensive message inside. She promised to address the matter. As for the cretin who wrote it, I can only say this: one thing I know about the human condition is that the greatest crimes in history are due to ignorance. That, of course, brings up our friend Edmund Burke again. But is anyone listening?