The Ultimate Test of Faith

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During the Holocaust, at the command of the German government, two thirds of the Jews of Europe (about 5.8 million people) were systematically exterminated. That's in addition to the murder of millions of additional "undesirables" (gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners, criminals, etc.).

The German government used these innocent people as scapegoats in order to distract the citizens of Europe from the war that was already underway and from the economic disaster of the prior decade.

Consider the plight of European Jews during the period called the "Shoah" (the Holocaust), from 1933 until the end of World War II in 1945.  The vast majority of these innocent Jews were not given a quick death.  They were not given an injection to speed their way into a painless death. They were exterminated, like annoying insects.

They were gassed to death, because that was the most efficient way to dispose of six million men, women and children - who happened to be Jewish. We know that Hitler used propaganda to convince much of the population that Jews should be removed from society. But, why was it so easy to turn the European population against Jews?  Can we prevent this from happening again?

Because they were Jews, millions of innocent people were murdered. Women, the elderly, the sick, the frail and children were often the first into the gas chambers. Men and hardy women were kept barely alive for their value as forced labor.

Those able to work were employed as slaves for the benefit of the military and German industrialists. When there was no more work, they too were murdered. Why did so many German industrialists use slaves for forced labor? How did they make such corrupt decisions? What allows seemingly normal people to decay into a morass of failed ethics?

This does not demean the importance of other Holocausts. Those innocent people who were murdered in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur were just as blameless. When will society stop fearing those who are dissimilar?

When will we learn to value the differences among us, rather than fear them? When will we stop ostracizing people because of their religion, race, ethnic heritage or gender orientation?  When will governments and individuals stop using minorities as scapegoats? After all, this is the 21st century! We're better than that. We must be better than that!

We surround ourselves with romance and comedy, playing to the healthier parts of our emotional identity. Repugnance, despair and evil exist within human nature. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine the dark side of our psyche.  Yet, humans are not good or bad, but good and bad.

If any benefit can come from the Shoah (the Holocaust), it is that we can examine and learn from historical depravity. We can measure the spread of immorality, degeneracy and wickedness. We can determine the farthest extent of morality. Yet, humans are complex beings. There is a great deal more to our nature than the ubiquitous battleground of virtue versus malevolence. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both.

Humans crave a sense of social connectedness. We are driven to espouse ideas determined to be socially appropriate. In that context, we discover why so many Europeans were eager to follow Hitler's horrifying dehumanization of Jews.  

Although there were many gentile heroes of the Shoah, much of the European population seemed pleased to turn in their Jewish neighbors, bowing to the propaganda proffered by Nazi leadership. Why were they so eager to be rid of their Jewish neighbors? Will we, or our children, be so willing to have our denigrated neighbors exterminated?

Deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were immensely critical decisions about morality. Humans are governed by principles, ethical beliefs and the power of veracity. Our minds are often clouded by delusions of morality.

Holocaust victims and survivors provide us with the human response to terror. Innocent people were reduced to distasteful objects, used for slave labor and then annihilated. The German government used propaganda to teach all of Europe that Jews were "vermin." An entire generation of Germans learned that Jews were dangerous and deserved to be exterminated.

Why did so many Europeans agree with this propaganda?  Why were they so eager to round up Jewish families (Einsatzgruppen) and turn them over to the SS, who placed them in concentration camps? 

In reality, the world is seldom seen in black and white; or even shades of gray - especially during genocide. In the midst of terrible, indescribable anguish, beauty can exist. Within beauty, despair exists. 

And, while many Jews in the abyss of the Holocaust worshipped God, some condemned God. While it might be simplistic to claim that God works in mysterious ways, how is one to focus on this conviction when the veneer of all that is good in life has been stripped away?  

How does one continue to love a God who allows the murder of innocent loved ones, a deity who permits blameless children to be starved, beaten, tortured, denigrated, disfigured and emotionally destroyed?  Could the Shoah have been the ultimate test of faith?

Holocaust survivors lost everything, but perhaps somehow gained something as well. Certainly an honest examination of the Holocaust must reveal torturous brutality and death. Most Holocaust survivors lost all of their loved ones. The facade of life's beauty was stripped away, revealing an incomprehensible abyss of revulsion.

Yet here, in the bowels of horror, the Jews of the Holocaust hit a wall and continued to run. Despite the onslaught of evil, in the face of certain death, the Jews of the Shoah fabricated a sense normalcy for their children. Deep within ghastly concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Jews of Europe practiced their religion, taught their children and loved one another.

Here, among gas chambers and crematoria, one can feel hope for the survival of the human spirit. Those singular individuals who maintained their Jewish identity in the Holocaust rise like a fabulous phoenix, from the ashes of annihilation.

Those poor souls trapped within the terror of the Holocaust were faced with the most perfidious forces. Deceit, brutality, cruelty, sickness, starvation and the death of loved-ones were daily companions. Yet, in the midst of utter despair, there was life, love, passion, desire, religious fervor and the excitement known only to children.  

Even in such hopeless desolation, there was love of God, infatuation, romance, passion and longing for all of the things that humans crave. Jews fabricated their ethnicity within the drumbeat of the steady march to the gas chambers. They refused to allow the fabric of society be torn by relocation and the demise of family.

Within concentration camps, Jews created schools, orchestras, athletic events, synagogue and prayer, weddings and funerals, dances and theatre, study groups and debates; to every hellhole the Jews were sent; they took their Jewish lifestyle and values with them. Rather than acquiesce to Nazi terror, Jews trapped within ghettos and concentration camps courageously maintained their culture and religious identity. Jewish holidays were observed as though it was just another ordinary year.

Even when it was forbidden to observe the rituals of Judaism, even when Jews were forced to burn the bodies of their brethren, Holocaust victims found a way to pray and to perform their ritual duties. Some of the most ardent examples of constructive human nature can be found buried within these terrifying Holocaust moments.

Hidden from the SS, Jews observed all of the required covenants and rituals, including prayer services on the Sabbath and during the major holidays, marriage ceremonies, burials and circumcisions. Along the sinister, terrifying, relentless path to gas chambers, Jews lived, loved, learned and died, behaving as though their lives would continue unabated.

In their darkest moments, the Jews of the Shoah fabricated a "normal" life for their progeny. Despite their impending mortality, they created an ordinary world on the inside to protect their children from the raging genocide on the outside.

Such was the nature of their love, faith and devotion. Indeed, this worship transcended parental affection. Into the gas chambers and crematoria of Nazi-controlled Europe, the Jews of the Holocaust emptied their faith and love, while they continued to worship the God of their ancestors.

The human spirit strives for autonomy and freedom. Yet, to appreciate human nature, one must descend into the depths of depravity and terror. We cannot understand humanity without comprehending its wicked flaws.

Deep within the darkest recesses of vicious genocide, we discover a faint light representing love, passion, desire, hope, worship and reverence. Here is the essence of humanity - a flicker of light representing morality, faith, love and righteousness, fighting the winds of annihilation, in the midst of the dark whirlwind of malevolence.

It's not enough that we understand the Holocaust.  We must be changed by its depravity.  Our progeny must also comprehend it. Otherwise, it could happen again.  This is why we must always tell the stories of the Holocaust. Such stories represent the very worst of human vilification and the unsurpassed limits of compassion.

Holocaust stories teach us how to recognize the worst examples of humanity, but also the remuneration of morality. The terror of genocide is not necessarily an inevitable human outcome. We must learn from the mistakes of our past, rather than repeat them. As long as we teach our children about the horror of the Holocaust, there is hope that it will never happen again.

Charles S. Weinblatt

Author, Jacob's Courage

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