The other day I was reading an article online (Anne Frank’s tree, Now Dying, Still Inspires Hope and New Life, by Jessica Ravitz, CNN.com, April 30, 2010) and I was struck by this passage about a woman who lives in Rohnert Park, California:
(Elaine) Leeder is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father lost his mother, sister, and brother when they were taken to a pit outside their Lithuanian village and gunned down with about 2,000 other Jews.
If I had read that quote about six weeks earlier, it would have been all of my understanding about what happened to Elaine Leeder’s father’s family.
But instead, the quote instantly brought to my mind the term “SS-Einsatzgruppen,” plus a whole background of knowledge about this murderous special unit of the Nazis.
When most people think of the Nazi killing machine, they think of gas chambers. Most people know little or nothing about the SS-Einsatzgruppen—the Nazi killing squads that traveled from village to village in Eastern Europe, from the late 1930s until shortly before the demise of the Nazi regime, systematically mass-murdering most or all of the Jews in each village. This was the first phase of the Final Solution, and it was only after months of this process that the Nazis decided they needed a less traumatic (for the perpetrators) and less public way of killing.
Thus, the gas chambers and crematoria were born only after hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered in their own villages, towns, and cities by the SS-Einsatzgruppen and its henchmen. And even once the gas chambers and crematoria were put into operation, the SS-Einsatzgruppen kept working. In all, of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, fully 1.5 million were killed by the SS-Einsatzgruppen.This entire context slammed into my mind when I read the statement about Elaine Leeder’s father’s family.
Also my mind brought back images I’d formed of these mass-killings (known as “Aktions” in SS-Einsatzgruppen parlance) from several recountings that I’d read recently in separate books by researchers Daniel Mendelsohn and Richard Rhodes.
In my youth, I was a voracious reader. Every summer I would join the local library’s reading club. I remember one year, reading club members were each given a map of the United States of America, and every time you finished a book and returned it, you’d receive a sticker of a different state. By the end of that summer I’d read 100 books and filled two maps.
Flash forward to last year (I was then 40) and I faced the fact that I had not read a book in years. Somehow, in the early post-college years I’d lost the habit of reading books, and once the habit was gone I’d just never gravitated back to it.
So I embarked on a personal reading project. The goal was simply to read at least one book per week. In fact, for the next several months I averaged between two and three books a week. (I keep track of them on a spreadsheet. Though I left the field of accounting a long time ago, a well-organized spreadsheet is still one of my great joys.)
My reading had no theme or pattern. It involved short-form and long-form, fiction and non-fiction, literary and pleasure, adult lit and children’s lit, different genres, and so on. One favorite discovery was Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Did you know that Edgar Allen Poe had written a novel? I did not, until I embarked on this reading project.
Then, as April approached and I contemplated National Holocaust Month, a notion occurred to me: My reading was all breadth, no depth.
So in observance of National Holocaust Month, I embarked on something I called the Holocaust Reading Project. My goal was to read 15 books about the Holocaust in April.
I solicited Holocaust book suggestions from friends, both in person and in online communities. And I frequented Amazon.com and used its terrific “Customers who bought this item also bought” feature, to let leads lead to other leads. And I did a bit of research online regarding many of the suggested books. I tracked dozens of titles (on that same spreadsheet) and as my reading progressed I became more selective.
I failed to read the 15 by the end of April, but I did read 10, and am continuing the project now, without a timeline, until I reach my goal. I’m currently on book #12. I have been careful to include a mix of types of books including diary, history, investigative journalism, memoir, novels, poetry, a short-story collection, and even a comic book (that won the Pulitzer Prize, no kidding). This reading project has been difficult—both emotionally and in terms of time—but the rewards are tremendous, and I plan to write more about it after I finish reading my 15th book.
While nobody who was not directly involved in the Holocaust can understand what it was like to be there, my level of understanding is forever deepened by the reading that I have been doing lately. Now whenever I read any article (or see a video, or speak with somebody) about the Holocaust, I find that I have the context that I was lacking before.
And now I’ve decided, for the long term, that the Holocaust Reading Project will not be my last one. From this point on, my reading will be a mix of breadth and depth. So personal reading projects (i.e., depth-reading) will be alternated with (or mixed in with) periods of unguided reading (i.e., breadth-reading).
Though I’ve not even finished this Holocaust Reading Project, I am already considering ideas for future reading projects. Some examples: Horror masters: The works of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti; Biographies of great composers; India under British rule.
Other ideas for personal reading projects are lists (such as Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest English-language Novels) and prize-winners (e.g., National Book Award winners).
I expect that this summer, once I finish my Holocaust Reading Project, I will take a break from this depth-reading and get into some light summery fare.
But before too long, once my brain is sufficiently rested … I will venture back into the deep end.
Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago.