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Jun. 8 2010 - 11:44 am | 317 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The Pathology Of Hoarding And Other Lasting Effects Of The Holocaust

My grandfather was a member of the Jewish resistance movement in Germany during the holocaust. He left the country in 1936, before things got super heavy, though the Nazis got his brother. He was a great guy, my grandfather, funny and smart and talented in lots of ways. But he was peculiar. For example, he had a thing about keeping plastic Tupperware and rubber bands. He was something of a hoarder, I suppose. Not as bad as the people on that TV show, but it was more than just recycling. He could not bring himself to throw these things away. There were Tupperware and rubber bands in drawers and cupboards and closets all over the house. Stacks, piles, heaps of them. My grandmother had to search out his stashes and secretly throw the stuff away.

My father told me this idiosyncrasy was the result of living as a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. My grandfather’s father lost his pharmacy business, and laws were passed to keep Jews from earning a living in other ways. So everyone got into the habit of saving things for the rainy days that looked sure to be more and more frequent, and rainier and rainier under the Third Reich. (Even things other than money, I mean—that stereotype, of course, predates the holocaust.) Apparently, the habit was a hard one to break, even after my grandfather moved to America, even after the war. My grandfather was never able to feel sufficiently comfortable in the world to be able to throw away certain types of trash, he was never able to feel safe enough, to trust that he wouldn’t one day need the stuff again. He was a survivalist.

I write this because I think there’s an analogy to be drawn in light of the Israeli government’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla last week. Jews all over the world are brought up to “never forget” the holocaust. It’s understandable to me that Israel, as a country, is by far the most defense-minded country I have ever visited. (I’ve spent three summers there with another branch of my grandfather’s family.) It was formed as a haven for Jews against a world that surely seemed very much out get them. Vigilance is in the national DNA, as well as, I believe, the collective belief that Jews were too passive and acquiescent, despite famous incidents like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during the holocaust. (This notion provided fuel for the revenge-fantasy gore in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, right? I still need to see that.) It goes beyond “never forget” into “never again trust anybody else in the world,” into “hit first and hit harder, so the world will know to never hit us again.”

This is maybe too simple. Armchair analysis of an entire group of people is dangerous enough without then trying to diagnose the foreign policy of another country. And I certainly acknowledge the problems inherent to writing this from so far away. But the attack on the flotilla was wrong. Terribly so. And even from the most pro-Israeli stance I can imagine, so very self-defeating. The same could, and should, be said for Israel’s heavy-handed oppression of Gaza and the Palestinians in general. And it all comes from a way of way of looking at the world that is, while perhaps understandable at its roots, pathological. Jews shouldn’t forget the holocaust. But they should learn to trust other people in the world again. Even if only for their own sake, so they don’t have to keep finding new places to hide their stacks of Tupperware and piles of rubber bands. That’s no way to live.


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  1. collapse expand

    I think the problem with your analysis is that you’re fixating on the Holocaust to such an extent that it’s occluding your view of the past 60 years of Israeli history.

    Israelis have been attacked and outright invaded by their neighbors, and continue to be proximate to countries who vilify their very existence as a means of distracting their populaces from internal troubles. So while we American Jews may have a bit of a pathology about the Holocaust, I think that is less important to Israelis. Their pathologies are formed much more by experiences like the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and so on.

    • collapse expand

      A good point. During my time in Israel, I was always struck by how the fact of being surrounded by enemies seemed to influence the national character, too. Even in day-to-conversation. The argumentativeness, the guard-up sharpness of wit—things I really love about Israel. But I do think, too, that some of that defensiveness stretches back to memories of the Holocaust—an event that is still so frequently mentioned by the political leadership itself. And it seems worrisomely self-destructive at the moment.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I've been writing and editing for hip-hop magazines for fifteen years. I live in New York City with my wife and kid. You can read my other writing over at The Awl:

    http://www.theawl.com/author/dave-bry

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    Contributor Since: February 2010