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Don't ever forget the Holocaust.
Long before the Holocaust, George Santayana (1905) wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This chilling quote haunts our comfortable existence and convicts us of our apathy. A popular song in the 1990’s declared that love isn’t something that you find, or have. Love isn’t just words we say, or some place we fall, but love is something that we do (Black & Ewing, 1997). Similarly, simply knowing about the Holocaust, feeling sorry about the Holocaust, or apologizing about the Holocaust isn’t enough. These are necessary but insufficient conditions. We, as human beings, must explicitly and strategically pursue morality and fervently reject all of the precepts of exclusion, persecution, and hate that allowed the Holocaust to occur.
Although I have never visited, my ancestral ties link me to Bavaria. No doubt my forefathers fished in the Danube and chopped firewood in Bohemia. However, might they have also been among the collaborators at Dachau? Separated by less than a century, would I have been any different? Would I have sheltered Anne Frank, or would I have betrayed humanity with my compliance? How do I get passed the crimson stain of my blood line? Remembering the Holocaust without reflecting and serious personal introspection would be like going grocery shopping and making dinner, but never tasting the meal.
While the power of the memory of the Holocaust is something that cannot be borne by one person, the responsibility to be the dissenting voice in opposition to hatred rests on every individual. Hitler was one person, a charismatic genius reinforced by a maniacal wanton for power and supported by a population seeking to overcome the financial, political, and emotional degradation following World War I. Hitler’s political policy, the New Order (Neuordnung), sought to establish Germany as a world superpower; indeed, the goal was to rule the entire world. In a perverse sense, Hitler’s pretense of a biological utopia, though immoral and in all ways reprehensible, flowed from a seemingly coherent philosophy. Recognizing this paradox and our human vulnerability makes the lessons of the Holocaust so much more urgent, lest we unwittingly pronounce altruism dead and divorce our ability to be empathetic.
Where was the threshold when most German citizens became convinced that there were inferior classes of people? Their prejudice and discrimination was not only targeted towards Jews, but also the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, Gypsies, those with darker skin, and others. The critical importance of remembering the Holocaust should not only include reflection on those who suffered and died, but we should contemplate and consider the conscience of our species that would allow such a tragedy. How could otherwise rational and just people commit such atrocities? The moral erosion occurred in stages. The perverse justifications for the Holocaust began as policies and laws created by those in power in support of their personal, political, financial, and ideological goals. The concentration camps were initially portrayed as benign and some argued they were designed to rehabilitate (Raper, 2001). In the later stages of this moral erosion, victims were dehumanized and slaughtered. Consider the attrition of resistance demonstrated in the quote by Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Socialist…, then the Trade Unionists…, then the Jews…, then they came for me –and there was no one left to speak for me,” (Gerlach, 2000). The events of the Holocaust had somehow become acceptable; the victims were no longer human because a hateful idea had infected tens of thousands of otherwise reasonable and sane people.
The memory of the Holocaust is a call to action, a prod that should urge each of us to embrace the rights of all people. There are many lessons to be learned, none less important than the reality of moral erosion. Apathy abounds in our world and we must be willing to pay attention. We must staunchly defend the human rights of all people. Millions were persuaded by an ill-conceived idea that supported German hegemony and ultimately the horrors of the Holocaust. For most, this persuasion began as passive acceptance, self-absorption, avarice, and prejudice. We must be stalwart beacons, strategically and purposefully poised to act in opposition and not repeat our history.
One person can make a difference for good by shining a light on injustice. We can do this locally by being active in our schools, neighborhoods, and communities. We can draw attention to global concerns in; Darfur, East Timor, North Korea, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Zambia, Dote D'ivoire, Libya, Nepal, and all countries that suffer under the tyranny of injustice. Ignorance begets apathy. We must promote reflection and action in everyone that touches our sphere of influence. We should revisit problems that fall out of the media limelight –just because Libya is the popular topic, doesn’t mean we should forget about any of the others. Holocausts are happening all over the world. We should dedicate our lives to honoring the victims of the Holocaust not only by remembering them, but by defending against future atrocities.
Black, C. & Ewing, S. (1997). “Something that we do.” Nothin’ but the Taillight, RCA Records.
Gerlach, W. (2000). And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Raper, S. (2001). The facts about the origins of the concentration camps and their administration. The Barnes Review, Jan./Feb. 2001, pp. 11-16.
Santayana, G. (1905). Reason in Common Sense, Volume 1, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY.