Why We Must Speak of the Holocaust

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We spell the Holocaust with a capital "H" because it represents the most devastating example of genocide in history.  It was not "a" holocaust, but "THE" Holocaust.  At the command of the German government, millions of Jews were systematically exterminated.  That's in addition to the murder of millions of additional "undesirables" (gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners, criminals, etc.).

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.  These law-abiding citizens represented no real threat to anyone.  Yet, they were evicted from their homes, schools, and jobs; and they were pushed into dilapidated ghettos.  Their property, bank accounts and valuables were looted by the German government and armed forces.  After being forced to survive in foul ghettos, the innocent Jews of Europe were moved into concentration camps.  Here, they were forced to work as slave laborers.  Overcrowded into decrepit buildings, the Jews of Europe were exposed to starvation, sickness and brutality by the German government.  They died by the hundreds of thousands.  Finally, according to the regulations of the German Wannsee Conference, the Jews were herded into gas chambers across Europe and systematically murdered by the millions. 

The vast majority of these Jews were not given a quick death.  They were not hung or shot to 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. 

Because of the way they praised God, millions of innocent Jews were murdered.  Women, the elderly, the sick, the frail and children were often the first into the gas chambers.  Healthy 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.  Some of those German companies exist today, albeit with different names.  Some still have the same name.  When there was no more work, they too were murdered.  

My mother experienced brutal anti-Semitism as a child in Russia.  I heard many stories about the vicious Cossacks, who persecuted Jews in the towns and villages of the Ukraine.  My mother and her sisters barely survived, and then later flourished in America.  However, most of her remaining family perished in the Holocaust.  So, genocide is close to my heart.  I will hold it for eternity, as a cumbersome stone attached to my soul.  It is a burden of remarkable proportions.  My ancestors cry out for justice.  They want you to know what happened to them and their children.  But, I cannot tell this story without revealing the Holocaust in every possible way.  It is a terrible and beautiful story, filled with heroes and villains.

Why would anyone want to think about the Holocaust today, particularly when they could listen to their iPod or tune out the poignant world with movies, laptops and television?  Yet, the death of millions of innocent people MUST be told.  If not, there would be nothing to prevent more genocide, and then more after that!  Everyone must hear this tragedy.  Otherwise, our progeny might embrace the worst of human nature. 

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 we learn to value the differences among us, rather than fear them?  When will we stop ostracizing people because of their religion, race or ethnic heritage?  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. 

Humans are not good or bad, but good and bad.  We surround ourselves with romance and comedy, playing to the healthier parts of our emotional uniqueness.  Yet, repugnance, despair and darkness exist within human nature.  We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine the sinister side of our psyche.

I explored how humans behaved during the most brutal and horrendous genocide in history.  For three years, I researched the Holocaust on a daily basis.  If any benefit can come from the Shoah, it is that we can examine and learn from the farthest extent of human depravity.  We can measure its immorality, degeneracy and wickedness.  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.  We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring, kind and iniquitous; we love and we despise.

Deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were immensely critical decisions about ethical behavior and our concept of morality.  Unlike animals, humans are governed by principles, ethical beliefs and the power of veracity.  Innocent people, just like you and me, 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 was taught that Jews were dangerous and should be exterminated.  Unfortunately, many Europeans were all too eager to agree with this propaganda.  They happily participated in rounding up the Jewish families (Einsatzgruppen) and turning them over to the SS, who placed them in concentration camps.  Almost none of the Jews survived, including women and children.

At the same time, despite their enslavement in ghettos and concentration camps, the Jews of Europe experienced the alluring beauty of passionate young love and the driving power of religious devotion.  After all, they were still human beings.  Incarcerated in concentration camps, Jewish victims continued to experience the world of emotions.  Layered upon this veneer was a nightmarish dose of panic, horror and trepidation. 

In reality, the world is seldom seen in black and white, or even shades of gray - especially during the Holocaust.  In the midst of terrible, indescribable anguish, beauty existed.  Within beauty, despair existed.  Not all imprisoned Jews were innocent victims.  Not all Germans were rabid anti-Semites, bent upon the destruction of the Jewish "race."  And, while many Jews in the abyss of the Holocaust worshipped God, some condemned God.  While it might be easy to claim that God works in mysterious ways, how is one to focus such 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 every innocent loved one, a deity who allows blameless people and 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, these Jews fabricated a make-believe world for their children.  Deep within the ghastly concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Jews of Europe continued to practice their religion, to teach their children and to love one another.  Here, among the 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 deceit, brutality, cruelty, sickness, starvation and the death of loved-ones.  Yet, in the midst of utter despair, there was life, love, sexuality, 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 maintained their ethnicity within the drumbeat of the slow, steady march to the gas chambers.  They refused to allow the fabric of Jewish society be torn by relocation and the threat of demise.  Within concentration camps, they 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 brought their Jewish lifestyle and values with them.  Rather than give in to the Nazis, Jews trapped within ghettos and concentration camps courageously maintained their culture.  Religious holidays were observed as though it was just another ordinary year.  Even when it was forbidden to observe the rituals of Judaism, Holocaust victims found a way to pray and to perform the duties of a Jew.  Some of the most ardent examples of constructive human nature can be found in these terrifying Holocaust moments.

Hidden from the SS, concentration camp 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 the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Europe, 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 brutal genocide, we discover a faint flicker of 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, in the midst of the dark whirlwind of malevolence.  But it's not enough that we understand the Holocaust.  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 vilification and the unsurpassed limits of human compassion.  Holocaust stories teach us how to recognize the worst examples of human behavior, but also the glorious benefit of tolerance and compassionate 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 Holocaust, there is hope that it will never happen again.

Charles S. Weinblatt

Author, "Jacob's Courage"

jacobscourage.wordpress.com

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