In third grade, I had to pick a famous person and give an in-costume presentation on their life. My mom suggested Coco Chanel, and I liked the idea of being glamorous and French, so she strung some fake pearls around my neck, dressed me in all black and I delivered a PG retelling of the iconic fashion designer’s R-rated life.
I became fascinated with her, and with fashion in general. I drew Chanel logos all over my notebooks. I got Chanel perfume as a bat mitzvah gift and nearly cried. My friend Max told me it smelled “grandma-ish,” but I didn’t care. I felt untouchably sophisticated when I wore it.In high school, I no longer wanted to be a fashion designer, but I still thought of Chanel as the epitome of all things classic and glamorous.
At least, I did, until 10th grade – when I learned that she’d been a raging anti-Semite and I, a Jew, had obsessed over her for much of my life.
And, as I would later learn, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who died in 1971, wasn’t your average Jew-hater.
During World War II, she had an affair with Hans Günther von Dincklage, who was recruited by the Nazis’ propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to spread the party’s rhetoric in France (among other things).
According to Hal Vaughan’s book, “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War,” Chanel helped the Nazis herself, and narrowly escaped answering to her crimes at a post-war trial.
Realizing Chanel hated Jews was devastating for me because it was the first time I learned someone I admired, or had heard of at all, was anti-Semitic. Even though I’d later learn that lots of people felt similarly, it hit me the hardest.
I happened to grow up not only Jewish, but in the eastern Cleveland suburbs, which are disproportionately Jewish. I’m also an intern for the Cleveland Jewish News which, contrary to many of my school friends’ beliefs, is a real thing.
I knew anti-Semitism existed, but having grown up with mostly Jewish friends in a mostly Jewish area, I didn’t realize how pervasive it still is in today’s society until I got to Miami.
I haven’t experienced any malicious anti-Semitism at school, just ignorance — like when people in my first-year dorm asked me to speak Hebrew, then told me it sounded Satanic, or when my friend asked a guy Uptown which Greek letter his Star of David necklace was.
I don’t blame my friends for knowing little, if anything, about Judaism. If I hadn’t grown up how I did, I probably wouldn’t either. But following the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people last fall and the recent shooting in Poway, Calif. that killed one, I think it’s more important than ever that, if people don’t know anything about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust, they inform themselves.
The United States’ commemoration for the Holocaust was established in 1979. It lasts from the Sunday before Yom HaShoah, Israel’s day of remembrance, to the Sunday after (so, this week).
I’m offering a brief history lesson, for anyone who’s still reading:
Adolf Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. Eight years earlier, he’d published “Mein Kampf,” a memoir of sorts that named the Jewish people as the biggest threat to Aryan (blond-haired, blue-eyed, non-Jewish) Germans.
After imposing repressive laws on them and forcing them into squalid ghettos, Hitler considered shipping Europe’s Jews off to Madagascar. But in 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, Adolf Eichmann, who had already been transporting Jews out of Germany, proposed the “Final Solution” to expunging Europe of its Jewish population.
From 1942 to 1944, Jews were transported, via packed trains, to concentration camps. Six of them — Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau — were death camps, where Jews were slaughtered in gas chambers upon arrival.
The Nazis killed six million Jewish people, and five million non-Jewish people.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the following week, shouldn’t just be for recognizing those who died in the genocide. It should remind us that, indisputably, the Holocaust happened.
It’s difficult to comprehend, whether you’re Jewish or not. The way I’ve tried to wrap my mind around it is to consume as many (historically accurate) books and movies about what transpired during the Holocaust and those who perpetrated the genocide as possible. I very seriously recommend “War and Remembrance” by Herman Wouk, the ninth episode of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and the film “Operation Finale.” I do not recommend “Sophie’s Choice.”
It’s difficult to comprehend that the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jewish people less than 80 years ago. But again, it happened, and we owe it to those who lost their lives to remember that, learn about that or, at the very least, realize that, if we haven’t already.