The Burden of Silence

I was born in Baltimore in 1954, nine years after the Shoah, one of signature events of the 20th—or any—century. That I recall, throughout my early childhood no one in my community spoke much about it.

During the Israeli Bond drives of those years, the rabbi would sometimes invoke a gruesome image or two—but nothing approaching a coherent account of continent-wide anti-Semitism or the camps. We had no discussions at the dinner table or in Hebrew School and certainly none in the public school classroom. At the Jewish Community Center where I played basketball, I saw men with numbers tattooed on their forearms. I couldn’t approach these men: there was no context for that and certainly no invitation.

I was only six years old when the English translations of Primo Levi’sIf This is a Man (1959) and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) became available in America. Later, having read them, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t moved my parents and teachers to a frank conversation of the war. Perhaps the memories were too near and raw; perhaps adults through their silence believed they were protecting us. Not even the survivors I knew, the parents of my friends, would speak. “Why remember bad times?” they’d say when the children asked.

Popular culture filled the void, and not particularly well. The Guns of Navarone (1961) pitted allied commandos against generic bad guys who happened to wear German uniforms. The Great Escape (1963) offered a mostly benign account of a POW camp. True, German soldiers gunned down the majority of those who attempted escape, but the story was about soldiers killing other soldiers who wouldn’t sit still and listen—wouldn’t play by the rules of war. In a sense, the never-say-quitattitude of the British and Yank prisoners invited the killing. There was a grim logic to that and a certain decorum and courtesy in the camp, call it a baseline respect for the human that was never shown to the prisoners of labor camps or death factories. Why didn’t the movies portray that? In 1965, Hogan’s Heroes gave us a comedy (!) set in a POW camp, its storylines variations on the mischievous play that duped the ever-clumsy German command. No one, it seemed, neither the entertainment industry nor educators, dared to take on the horror of industrial-scale murder.

All I had to work with in my struggle for understanding was the silence of adults and quasi-entertaining military action/adventure accounts of the war. What I sorely missed were innovative curricula like Facing History and Ourselves (founded in 1976) that addressed the calamity head on in public school settings. At last, by my mid-twenties, more histories and more survivor accounts were being published and televised series like Holocaust (1978) brought realism to the subject. By that point my war-related anxieties were already established. I had filled in blanks not with information but with nightmares of snarling dogs and men in jackboots hauling people off into the night.

Little wonder that these anxieties surfaced decades later in my writing. Many Jewish artists find themselves reckoning with the events in Europe seventy years ago, whether or not they lived through them. My reckoning came in The Tenth Witness, a novel set in 1978 about the legacy of national socialism. I follow a character who falls in love with the daughter of a man who made steel for the Reich. Why? I suppose I wanted to get as close to the beast as I could to study it—in a context I understood, the 70s, when there were still plenty of former Nazis walking the streets of Munich and Buenos Aires. The woman fascinated me. She was innocent, though her father wasn’t. Still, did she need forgiving for merely having been born German, or born to parents implicated in war crimes? What does forgiveness look like in the context of the Shoah? How do the sins of parents weigh on children? What does a child learn from a father who used slave labor? Is that child somehow tainted? These questions confused my teenage years, and only decades later did I gain perspective enough to wrestle with them.

Doubtless, my parents and teachers thought they were doing right by sparing children details of the Shoah. We take another view these days, and that’s a good thing because their silence proved a burden.

No one counted on that.


This piece ran on the web site on November 13, 2013.


  1. Jeff Sullivan says:

    I just read your book “The Tenth Witness”. I found it to be extremely well written and impossible to put down, Being born in 1946, I was able to meet and, eventually, to know well, some survivors of the horrors visited upon humanity by the Third Reich.
    I think your treatment of their situation opened my understanding of their struggle immensely. All I can ask is that you keep writing…. you do it so well.
    Thank you for writing such an entertaining book about the horrors man commits against man.. It has never made sense to me how such things happen.

    • Jeff,

      I’m ridiculously late getting back to you. Thanks for writing. There’s no understanding what happened in those years. The best we can do, I suppose, is face the horror and figure ways to avoid the same mistakes. Not sure we’re doing all that well. Regards, LR

  2. Les cordes says:

    Mr Cohen . Just finished “chaos” and wanted to add to the kudos ..

    all the components of good writing and a believable story line ..

    So many “great” mystery looks have serious flaws

    You’re getting pretty darn close with this one ..

    Nice ..

    My only surprise is that you’ve written only two mysteries ..

    I trust/hope more are on the way!

    • Thanks for writing. Appreciate that you’ve read Chaos–and, yes, more on the way. My next is a stand alone (not an Henri); but more Poincare to follow. Regards,

  3. Pat Barkett says:

    Dear Mr. Rosen,
    Wow. Just finished “Witness”. It has what I love in a book, lots of new info for me who has never heard of the Wadden Sea, not familiar with transforming e-junk into gold, or ramming cruse ships aground to dismantle them, steel platforms for finding treasure ships or sunken German subs. And underneath it all, addressing the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. I grew up in MN in the 40’s blissfully unaware of the horror of the death camps. It was vaguely alluded to in school. (Like the Indian reservation near by that was never mentioned.) It wasn’t until I moved to NY as a young woman and married a Jewish man from Brooklyn that the unspeakable became spoken. Are the sins of the parents visited upon the children? Yes. How can one reconcile the fact that loved ones were monsters? Or that we harbor possibility to be monsters ourselves? I loved your book.

Speak Your Mind