When this week started, I didn’t think I’d be writing about the Holocaust. In the current political climate with actual Nazis walking the streets of our country with impunity, it seems to be coming up more and more. Still, I didn’t think when I sat down to watch four of my favorite TV shows do their yearly crossover that I’d be confronting this particular historical nightmare.DCTV-Crossover_CVR-FNL_9215b15d-600x923

I should have realized. I should have been prepared. For weeks now, the CW’s four DC Universe superhero shows – Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow – have been advertising their once a year, four-episode crossover. I’d seen the commercials where commandos in uniforms reminiscent of the old SS of yore crashed the wedding of Barry Allen and Iris West, with all their superhero friends in attendance. “I hate Nazis,” said Arrow, Supergirl, and Flash in the commercials, before the epic ass-kicking began. I knew the crossover was going to feature Earth X, an alternate reality where the Nazis won and subjugated the entire world. I just didn’t know how far the show would go, or how much it would affect me.

Hi, I’m Shoshana, and I’m the granddaughter of a survivor of Auschwitz. And this is how Crisis on Earth X gave me an epic anxiety attack.

[[Please note: This article will include spoilers for all four episodes of Crisis on Earth X, as well as have discussions about the Holocaust and its atrocities that may be triggering. Read on with this warning in mind.]]


Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge comic book fan, so it’s no surprise I’m an avid follower of all four of DC’s CW shows. I’m a firm believer that in an age of grim-dark reinterpretations of superheroes, the DC TV shows have retained the joyous, adventurous flavor of the original comics while still being innovative for a new modern TV audience. It stands as a nuanced set of shows that go from light-hearted and fun (Legends of Tomorrow) to often dark and brooding (Arrow) and even politically conscious and reactive to today’s real-world issues (Supergirl). Flash is the show I turn to on my worst weeks to find a ray of humorous, heartfelt hope, bolstered by the camaraderie of Team Flash and the exuberant performance of Grant Gustin as Barry Allen.

Yet when I heard this year’s massive crossover would handle the Nazi-focused Crisis on Earth X story arch, I was hesitant. For years, Nazis were the ubiquitous punching bags of media, right alongside zombies. Hell, I think people felt more emotional connection and empathy for the undead, who truly had no say in their unfortunate plight. Nazis are a representation of everything corrupt in the world, the choices made by portions of mankind to sink to depravity through fascism, bigotry and disregard for empathy and human life. The cookie-cutter, two-dimensional Nazi became an easy punching bag in comics, movies, and video games, an easy antagonist to point to as the ultimate evil so no consumer would have difficulty with blasting them out of existence. Or punching them in the jaw.

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In today’s political climate, however, it seems the sentiment of ‘punch a Nazi’ has become a controversial one for some reason. With the rise of fascist thought in America, the struggle to embrace a ‘live and let live’ mentality has brought some to talk about Nazism as if it was an acceptable philosophy rather than an abhorrent one. Articles like the recent on in the New York Times profiling the everyday Nazi have been steps, inadvertently or otherwise, towards normalizing fascists living in America today. When ‘alt-right’ leader Richard Spencer was decked in the face on live television by a masked anti-fascist activist, beneath the cries of support there was an undercurrent of actual sympathy. Nazis have become, to some part of the population, sympathetic. (By the way, if you’re having a bad day, just watch this gif a few times, it always gives me some joy).

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Now I trusted the progressive writer teams of the DC shows to take on the issue of Nazis well. Of every show on television right now, Supergirl has come out as the most reactive to the horrors of the regressive Trump America, going so far as to almost directly referencing issues going on (such as taking up the term “nasty woman” with a stare-into-the-camera defiance I love) and include more inclusive, progressive storylines with gusto. I wasn’t worried about their handling of the material.

I was worried about me, as a viewer. I was worried it might be too much.


As a little girl, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. It was almost impossible to miss them in the Orthodox Jewish community where I grew up. Everyone was only one or two steps removed from a Holocaust survivor. They are our neighbors, our family members, people in our synagogues, working in businesses. They are grandparents, just like mine were. My grandmother Nora survived Auschwitz while my grandfather, who died before I was born, survived Treblinka. And in our community, there is a saying: never forget. To us, it isn’t a slogan, but a way of life.

And so from an early age, I heard stories, unimaginable stories, impossibly horrific stories. I saw films. I read books. I went to museums and saw evidence first-hand of the nightmares. I read first-hand accounts. And I met survivors. I talked to my own grandmother and watched her have nightmares. I learned about the twenty or so family members she lost, the life she left behind. She tried to shelter me from the worst of it, but it was impossible to avoid.

I started having nightmares after seeing Holocaust films the first time I saw Schindler’s List. I was staying at a friend’s house and went to bed after the film only to wake up screaming. I had those nightmares after seeing several other movies, and after going to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel. After watching the first episode of The Man In The High Castle I couldn’t sleep properly for three days. Though the show seemed well done, there was no chance I could watch. I avoided ads for it. I grew furious when someone in their promotional department thought decorating an entire New York train car with the Nazi symbols to advertise the show was a good idea. I wasn’t avoiding the issue of the Holocaust. Far from it. The stories lived so far under my skin they’d rooted in and become a haunting I couldn’t shake.

There is an idea when discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder called secondary trauma, which is defined as “when an individual is exposed to people who have been traumatized themselves, disturbing descriptions of a traumatic events by a survivor or being exposed to others inflicting cruelty on one another” (Source: Wikipedia). There have been discussions of how the horrors of WWII have continued to pass down their traumas to the next generation and how many people are carrying these secondary traumas into their lives. So it’s no surprise when I mentioned these nightmares to a therapist that she told me this was a form of secondary trauma, one I carried from my family’s history.

And in a way, strangely, I was okay with it. I believe forgetting the past means we can’t help but repeat them, and as our political climate has shown, we’ve got to be vigilant. Sure I’d love to avoid waking up shouting, but it isn’t a consistent problem. I’ve taken my joy at shooting the hell out of Nazis in the last few Wolfenstein games, and love seeing Indiana Jones punch the hell outta Nazis in his movies. But every once in a while, something comes along and pushes the wrong button. And then there’s a tightness in my chest and an anxiety rolling through me I can’t deny.

I sat down to watch Crisis on Earth X and suddenly, I was having a serious problem.


The first two episodes of the crossover, Supergirl and Arrow, went off pretty well. The wedding of Barry and Iris (FINALLY) was something I’d been looking forward to for a while. Seeing all my favorite characters coming together and even talking about their problems (Felicity and Oliver’s relationship drama, Alex’s recent break-up with her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer, and Kara’s loss of her boyfriend Mon-El) were all awesome. Supergirl herself Melissa Benoit flexing her fantastic singing voice during the ceremony scene was a brilliant call-back not only to her time as a Glee star but to the Flash/Supergirl crossover musical episode from earlier this year.

Then, of course, the Nazi’s attacked and it was time for some super-hero ass kicking. And make no mistake. The fight scenes were incredible. The shows really blew out their special effects budget to make every single character have a moment to shine, even taking special time to highlight the non-powered characters using their talents to add to the fights. But as time went on, something started to creep into my skin, especially when the super-powered Nazis showed up. It turned out the general of the Nazi armies, Overgirl, was none other than an alternate world version of Supergirl, and the Fuehrer himself, inherited after Hitler died in 1994 on Earth X, was none other than the doppelganger Oliver Queen himself. Both fought our heroes, emblazoned proudly with the SS emblem on their chests, and that’s when my stomach started to clench. Hearing actors I adored playing evil versions of themselves spouting horrible bigoted, ethnic-cleansing level shit was difficult.

But nothing was as hard as the end of the episode of Arrow and episode 3 of the four-parter, where our heroes were transported to Earth X.

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There are images that haunt me from the Holocaust, images people seem intent on resurrecting in every movie and even on memes across the internet. The image of people behind barbed wire, their hair shorn down, skinny and starving and wearing those striped uniforms with those horrifying Stars of David on their chests. And in the episode of Flash, our heroes end up inside one of those very pens alongside emaciated, terrified people. They stand in their super-suits alongside people being held for cleansing in a concentration camp, large as day on my TV screen.

And that’s when I started to panic. My chest got tight. My face got warm. And I really, really wanted to turn off the TV.

 

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Screenshot from Crisis on Earth X episode 3

 

The show does nothing to hide the horror of the plight of the prisoners. Jackson (one half of Firestorm from the Legends) asks a prisoner what the pink triangle on his clothing was all for. The prisoner (later discovered to be freedom fighter The Ray) replies, “I loved the wrong person,” intimating the pink triangles marked queer prisoners. Stars, not shown on TV until later in the episode (presumably for effect), indicated Jews. All held together, all in those damned striped uniforms.

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I paused the episode three times before I could get through those scenes. As the heroes talked glibly about escaping, the doppelganger of Detective Lance, now a high ranking SS officer, comes in and confronts White Canary, his daughter from another earth. When he asks her why she’s in the camp when she is the epitome of blonde hair/blue eyed perfection, she tells him she is gay. He says he cleansed his own daughter for just the same “deviance” before ordering the heroes taken out, presumably to their deaths.

There are some images like I said. One is the mass graves of Europe, the pits where prisoners were lined up and shot and left for dead by the hundreds. And this doppelganger SS Lance led the heroes to the edge of the same kind of pit and lined them up to face their end. This is about when I had to nope out for a few more minutes once more. Because this was a scene out of my nightmares, and it was happening to characters I loved in a comic book TV show.

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I got up. I took a walk around. I drank some water. I wanted to get through this episode. I wanted to see how my favorite heroes would kick the hell out of these Nazis and show them just what fascist mass-murderers got. It was vicarious, it was meant to be, and I wanted to see it to the end. But there was an off-note to me, something not sitting well in my stomach – something besides the obvious secondary trauma.

It was the glibness. When put beside these images of ultimate horror that haunt my dreams, the superheroes I love looked tawdry and disrespectful. They seemed oddly unaffected by the horrors around them, disregarding the human suffering by focusing on their own objective. Few moments showed a real connection to the enormity of the nightmare around them in these scenes. The heroes looked uncomfortable, but their dialogue was removed, the lofty pronunciations of writers trying to gloss through an unbelievably traumatic moment with blase pronouncements of how humanity has harmed one another throughout history in the worst ways.

Even Professor Stein, a character who the writers have gone out of their way to show is Jewish, and Sarah and Alex, both queer characters whose sexuality is prominent in the series, only get moments to address the nightmare of what they’re witnessing. And then they’re off to save the day with grim determination and square-jawed heroics, never once truly interacting with the prisoners around them. In their escape, they leave behind a concentration camp full of people surely soon to be murdered who are used as nothing more than props to make a point.

And there, I discovered, was my problem with the episode and with the intended emotional moments. The Holocaust was used as a prop. It felt cheap. It felt out of sync, out of step, out of place, and not nearly as respectful as it was trying to be.

A single moment made the show all the harder to watch. Heroic Oliver Queen pretends to be the Fuehrer to sneak into the Earth X base and is tested by SS Commander Lance for his identity. They bring out a prisoner: Earth X Felicity Smoak, Oliver’s love on Earth 1 and a known Jewish character. And this, folks, is when I finally had to nope for a while. Because seeing one of my favorites Felicity, in the pajamas with the yellow star of JUDE on her chest, on her knees about to be executed by a Nazi, was too much.

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When he called her a “Jewess” I paused to take deep breaths. This was painful. This was triggering. And in my mind, this was over the top. Felicity talks about being taken prisoner for sharing her bread with kids in the camp. “They were starving,” she cries, as the writers ignore the fact that there needs be no excuse for why an SS commander would hold a gun to her head. In reality, she’s a Jew. Nazis needed no excuse to execute Jews. They were missing the point. And they were using a serious trauma to do it.

There were moments of real emotion, real connection. When the rebellion leader, doppelganger of Supergirl’s Wynn, talks about saving his earth, the actor gives a surprisingly emotional performance, hammering home to the heroes who want only to return to save their earth that he must protect and save his earth, where people are dying in the same conflict their grandfather’s fought. And Felicity’s declaration to the Fuehrer on Earth 1 that her grandparents didn’t survive the Holocaust to see their world fall to Nazis was, though short, impactful.

Still, it was during the course of the somewhat convoluted storyline that I discovered problem two with the crossover. Because at the end of the day, we know the heroes would win. That’s how these stories go. They’d go home, they’d defeat the Fuehrer and the General (they did), and they would share a wonderful ending (which I won’t spoil because it is great). But once again, Earth X is put in their rearview mirror, while those background characters would continue to be slaughtered while the resistance fights on. The Ray returns to help, but otherwise, our heroes return to their regularly scheduled broadcast. And I was left with a hitch in my chest, some nightmares on the schedule for that night, and an odd taste in my mouth.

Because punch Nazis all you want, but Holocaust victims and their memories are not props to drive home an agenda. And that’s where this episode went.


In the end, I watched the end of the crossover. I crowed when the heroes kicked the hell out of the Nazis with beautiful special effects style. I loved every second of watching the ending. And frankly, the payoff felt strong despite my issues. The fact that the Nazis are annihilated by a team of diverse heroes including people of color, Jews, and queer heroes was not lost on me, and the show worked hard to nail that home over and over. But by the end of the night I came out feeling shakey, and while others I spoke to seemed excited by how thoughtful and well-done the show had taken Nazis in general, I was left unconvinced. Hell, I was left with the need to work off some anxiety. I stayed up late. I wasn’t really okay.

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The message of the Crisis on Earth X crossover is a relevant one and an important one today in our world: Nazis can rise and we must face them no matter the cost. The show does not baulk at the message and instead stands firmly with our heroes united against this unholy threat. But where I’d been concerned about nuance being lost, I found those concerns justified. Did the show need to take the heroes in their lavish costumes to a concentration camp? No. Did they need to put Felicity on her knees and call her Jewess? No. And did they need to leave behind Earth X as an after-thought, left to its perpetual war without regard for closure for the audience? No.

There were, in my eyes, other ways that would have felt more compelling, more complete, and less exploitative. And while I credit the team for trying very, very, hard to get this right, I think they missed the mark by just a little. Or at least it seems that way for me, someone who didn’t sleep well last night.

[[Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1]]

569e646046152So apparently, Captain America is a HYDRA agent now. And everyone seems intent on telling me how I should or shouldn’t feel about it.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, let me fill you in. Captain America, the star-spangled hero that’s graced the comics since the 1940’s, has had a rough time of it in recent years. First, Cap got aged to an older man thanks to some shenanigans, and had to retire from being Cap. Steve Rogers handed the shield to his friend Sam Wilson aka Falcon. For a time he became the head of SHIELD and even went on to still try to be cap, even in his elder years. But events in the comics recently gave him back his vitality and youth, and he took the name Captain America again to kick some Hydra ass.

Except it turns out, thanks to the new comic Captain America: Steve Rogers, that Cap isn’t the Hydra ass kicker we thought. You see, according to the first issue written by Nick Spencer, Captain America is apparently a Hydra agent.

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“There’s also no Santa Claus.”

Now, I know what you’re going to say. “But it’s a comic book! There’s clearly some mind control going on, or reality changing, or whatever nonsense is going on. This is a gimmick, a ploy to sell first issues!” And yes, all these things may be true. Cap’s youth was returned by an incarnated cosmic cube named Kubiq, and that may account for the odd changes to Cap. But it isn’t just the modern Cap that’s apparently jumped on the squid-faced bandwagon. No, Captain America #1 has a flashback sequence through the book that shows little Steve Rogers with his mother when she’s rescued from her drunk, abusive husband by a woman who radicalizes her into Hydra. The indication then is that not only is Cap a Hydra agent, but he has been for a very, very long time.

The first issue of this Spencer run landed on shelves with a proverbial bang in a week when Marvel needed to score serious press attention. DC was launching the rebrand of their entire company through their event Rebirth and might have otherwise dominated the news cycle. But thanks to this huge heel turn, Marvel drowned out DC’s launch in a big way. And of course they did. Because the hero of America has become the vehicle of a fascist organization, a tool of everything he ever fought against. So, the internet went nuts.

The fan response has been, to my eyes, almost completely negative. A great example of the responses I’ve seen comes from TC Curly, a friend of mine, who said:

I wouldn’t mind a marvel character heel turn, but having cap join hydra is like having aqua man join the Aryan nation. It’s bizarre, It’s drastic, and it just feels really dirty.

Even Chris Evans, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America himself, got in on the concern about the recent reversal, stating on Twitter:

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hail-hydra-shot-my-parents-chimichangas-hahah😂-if-you-2586866There’s been quite a lot of articles about how this is a desecration of everything that Captain America stands for. Plenty more are talking about how this is a gimmick that will just be reversed, although Time magazine’s interview with Cap’s creative team basically says it’s not. Still others point out, rightly so, that having Cap turn into an agent of an organization that were associated heavily and born in the comics from the Nazis is spitting in the face of the origins of the character. Specifically, Captain America was written by two Jewish men, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. And now, he’s being retroactively written as being a tool of the regime that supported Hitler’s Nazi regime.

And this is where the conversation online has taken an interesting turn. Because while there are thoughtful articles pointing out the problem with associating Cap with Nazis, other articles have taken the time to distance Hydra as an organization from the Nazis and their activities. Specifically, they point to the origins of Hydra in fascism across the globe rather than in the Nazis in specific. And it’s this attempt to bend over backwards to save face for the Spencer storyline that’s got me frustrated and a little angry.

Like this new storyline or not, the Spencer storyline has given people a chance to discuss a really difficult situation: the use of Nazis in a major plot arch through Marvel comics. Like it or not, Hydra was introduced as a major fascist bad guy faction that had its start associated heavily with the Nazis. One only needs to think hard about the very first major HYDRA bad guys and the first one that probably pops to mind would be The Red Skull. Who, in the comics, looked early on a lot like this:

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Yup, that’s pretty blatant there. Swastika and all. Nazi.

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That armband ain’t just a fashion accessory.

Then there’s Baron Von Strucker, a major Aryan ‘purity of races’ kind of guy who was a major part of HYDRA for years. While comics tried to back-track away from Von Strucker’s Nazi associations too over the years and dropped a bunch of his white-power motivations, the guy still sported the ol’ red armband for a long while.

Over the years, Hydra did branch out to back other fascist regimes worldwide in the comics, but a huge part of their past remains with the Nazis. Red Skull remained that swastika wearing presence in the comics, a constant reminder of the genocidal birthplace of the group in comics. Later writers tried to back Hydra away from the Nazis too, but the presence of them in Hydra’s past remains. And while the Marvel Cinematic Universe worked hard follow that distancing tactic, going as far as having Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull give a diatribe about how Hydra was only using the Nazis in Captain America: The First Avenger, that cannot divorce the history of the Nazi’s fictionalized presence in the comic book organization.

[[On another note, the MCU doesn’t always separate the Nazis from HYDRA so much. Agents of SHIELD bad guy Daniel Whitehall actually was a Nazi scientist named Rinehart who experimented and dissected people on the show. All while looking like this.

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“I just got this Iron Cross from a re-enactment event weekend. Really!”

Still questioning whether Hydra is associated with Nazis? No? Me neither.]]

Apparently people can try. Because articles are taking their time now to do so, making it very clear that Hydra is more than just Nazis. But why now? Why have this in-depth discussion about how these genocidal, world-dominating, fascist-supporting aren’t really Nazis now? Because Captain America is now being associated with Nazis. And if they can’t deny the storyline is happening, then at least they’ll deny that the organization is that bad.

It’s this hair-splitting that is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Guys, Hydra were Nazis. Red Skull was this guy for years. This guy. Right here.

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And instead of just accepting that Marvel is associating our star-spangled hero with the Nazis, people are bending over backwards to explain how its not that bad and mincing whether or not Hydra itself is Nazis. That might be even more insulting to me than what’s going on with Cap. People are having legitimate emotional responses to seeing their beloved hero becoming a Hydra agent. Some of those reactions have to do with the horror of seeing Captain America be associated with the Nazis. For Jews especially, it smacks of an emotional ignorance about the hero Cap was to those who look back at WWII and see the specter of the Nazi holocaust overshadowing their families.

Plenty of folks are having legitimate emotional reactions and saying no, it’s not okay. Instead of acknowledging that emotional response and how it might be insensitive to Jewish readers, people are in a rush to say “They aren’t Nazis! You’re over-conflating it!” It’s comic-splaining at its best and bordering on gaslighting. “You’re seeing Nazis where they aren’t!”

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Ahem. Really? So that swastika is just a tibetan good luck symbol on Red Skull there, huh?

This response smacks of so many cases of people white-washing and ignoring the legitimate concerns of Jews over representation and insensitive treatment that it infuriates me. While I don’t necessarily think the situation is anti-semetic exactly, it feels careless in its consideration of how this plotline might impact those for whom Nazis have a more personal hatred.

I remember showing my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, Captain America in the comics when I was younger. I told her in the comics that he first showed up punching Hitler in the face. I remember her laughing and shaking her head at it, in this kind of bitter way. I wonder if she thought how funny wish fulfillment art is, though I never asked her how it made her feel. I wonder now how this comic would make her feel, seeing Cap turned to the dark side. Mostly, I wonder how all these “well, actually…” articles about Hydra would make her feel. “Well, actually they’re not Nazis. They just wore swastikas and supported Hitler’s actions in World War II before moving on to be fascists elsewhere. But they’re totally not Nazis themselves. Really!”

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Yup. No Nazis here.

 

 

My grandmother passed away when I was sixteen, so she’s not here to ask how she feels. But I know how I feel about the Captain America thing. I’m going to keep reading so I can see where Nick Spencer and the Cap team is going with this plot. But mainly, I know how I feel about these articles trying to drive away any feelings of discomfort by Jewish readers by comic-splaining away the Nazis. As opposed to listening to those fans’ feelings with compassion and understanding, people would rather we shut up and stop associating Cap with one of the most genocidal groups of all time.

Funny, I would like to stop associating him with them too. Only now, thanks to the comics, I can’t. So let me have my feelings, thanks, without explaining to me why I should sit down and be quiet about it. My comic nerd rage is valid too, especially when it’s fueled by personal history and real-world religious bigotries.