Of Horror and Harry

This weekend I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It is excellently done, which is to say it is terrifying: that such madness and inhumanity could grip an entire country for a decade and a half makes one doubt the concept of humanity altogether. There were charts showing “acceptable” hair color, eye color, and nose width as opposed to those that displayed signs of “racial impurity”; there were Nazi children’s books depicting Jews as rapacious, hook-nosed unnatural monsters; there were accounts and pictures of life in the ghettos, of the Nazis’ deliberate fostering of disease and starvation . . . and that was all before you reached the main second-floor exhibit on the concentration camps themselves, where I walked under a cast of the gate of Auschwitz (emblazoned with the famous ARBEIT MACHT FREI) and felt as if I were passing through the very gate of hell. While I had read much about the camps before, thanks to Night and Fragments of Isabella and The Hiding Place and QB VII, the gate, the cattle car, the bunks, the scale model of the gas chambers and crematoria, the heaped-up mass of shoes and human hair made it all as real as the bed on which I sit and the computer on which I type.

So did this: When you arrive at the museum, you are given a card with a name, number, picture and short biography of a real person who experienced the Holocaust, and invited to track his or her life through the course of the atrocity by entering the number into computers set up throughout the exhibit. This is a brilliant move on the museum’s part, as it transforms the too-vast-to-comprehend ten million Jews and others who perished in the Holocaust into the one you hold in your hand and identify with. Mine died at Auschwitz. Her name was Hannah. She was 53.


Afterward my thoughts went back—and I hope this will not sound horribly trivial or disrespectful, as I certainly don’t mean it so—to Harry Potter. Partly this was because Melissa was once asked what the series was about and she said “ethnic cleansing,” and I think she's right. Lord Voldemort’s desire to wipe out any “impurities” in the wizarding world is an echo of the Nazis’ obsession with bloodlines, and the series’ entirely casual multiculturalism (where Harry likes Cho, Ginny likes Dean, werewolves and giants can be good guys, and wizard-Muggle unions are praised) is in every way a rebuke to that and a celebration of diversity. (Though my mere use of the words “diversity” and “multiculturalism” makes this sound more didactic, cheesy, and heavy than it actually is in the books, where it’s just life.)

But more I was thinking about the use of such a museum and the painful emotional experience I had going through it, and likewise the use of the deaths in HP4, 5, and 6—what purpose those painful emotional experiences can serve for readers. We received a letter this week from a woman whose child had been deeply upset by the death in HBP, and she vehemently objected to the fact that her child had been made to experience such trauma. I had little sympathy with this, partly because, as an editor, I love emotion, I love trauma—while one part of me is cowering at my desk with my hands over my head, as I was the first time I read the ending of HBP, the analytic part of me thrills to the fact that I’m being made to experience such emotions and positively rubs its hands in glee at the effect that it’s going to have on readers.

And then I disagreed with it because I believe in reading as an act of emotional normalization: It rescues you from solipsism, prepares you for the occurrence of certain emotions in real life, equips you to deal with them, and, in ideal cases, engenders sympathy and compassion for others. While this is not fiction's primary purpose and never should be (for pleasure is), in every intense emotional situation of my life, I have sought comfort in the experiences of the fictional people who have been there before me; during a break-up this past year, I pulled out Middlemarch, Sense and Sensibility, Bleak House, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason for the comfort of the authors putting words to my feelings and the reassurance that Dorothea, Marianne, Elinor, Esther, and Bridget had survived—and so would I. With HBP, this child will at some point in the course of real life lose someone he loves (however much his mother may deny it): and how much better to know that Harry has too, and come through just fine, with those who remain bound even closer to him and his will to survive and defeat Voldemort stronger than ever. The Holocaust Memorial Museum offers no comfort—there isn’t any—but from its depiction of depravities and the horror they cause in the viewer, it creates a resolution that’s stronger still: Never again.

And that is worth a little trauma.