Fifty-one years ago a monster was slain. When the world finally drew aside the curtain to look on the fallen Third Reich, the ghastly sight was too much of a nightmare to comprehend. Soldiers and civilians alike could only stare in silent horror at the gruesome remains of a monstrous killing machine.
Early in the year 1995, thousands celebrated the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps by quietly trampling through their desolate grounds. They struggled to fathom the enormity of the crime. Some 1,500,000 people had been killed in the death camp at Auschwitz alone! It was a time for silence, a time to reflect on man's inhumanity to man. Haunting questions echoed in the cold ovens, in the empty barracks, across the undisturbed mountains of plundered shoes.
Today there is horror; there is outrage. The Holocaust, during which several million were systematically murdered, reveals what a monstrous evil Nazism was. But what about then? Who spoke out? Who did not?
Steven Spielberg's epic film focuses on only one of the many unsung heroes, but there were other Schindlers. Other courageous non-Jews whose sense of outrage and decency moved them to risk their own lives to try to save European Jews from the furnace of hatred that was the Holocaust. Elementary compassion was the most powerful unifying strength that enabled these quiet heroes to battle evil:
"Jewish tradition has no saints, only humans. The sages of the Jewish tradition teach that those whose merits surpass their vices, they are the righteous; that when you save one life, you have saved a universe."1
Some of these heroes included.
Irena Sendler, a social worker from Poland who gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping. Sendler wangled a permit to enter the teaming ghetto and check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto. The deportations had already begun, and although it was impossible to save adults, Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. To remember who was who, she wrote the real names on sheets of paper, burying them in bottles in her garden. Sendler organized a network of families and convents ready to give sanctuary. When the war ended, Sendler retrieved the bottles in which she'd hidden her index of names and began searching for the real parents. Few had survived. Years later, after she was honored for her wartime work, her picture appeared in the newspaper. Many of the children whom she had saved began calling and thanking her.
Mary Jane Gold was an American Socialite who saved some of Europe's greatest artists and intellects. When the German troops occupied the French capital in 1940, Gold--and tens of thousands of others--headed south for unoccupied Marseilles. There she met Varian Fry. Fry too was an American (a Harvard man and a bonafide WASP). He was also a reporter and had witnessed Nazi brutality early on. As war raged on Fry organized Marseille's "Emergency Rescue Committee," enlisting friends like Gold to help him.
Operating out of rooms at the Hotel Splendide, then eventually from a villa called Air Bel, they procured phony passports and real visas, sheltered refugees and organized escape routes to Spain and Portugal. Through their work in Paris, these Americans helped some 2,000 people escape the Nazis. Among them: painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, authors Franz Werfel, Hannah Arendt and Hans Habe, and Nobel prize-winning bio-chemist Otto Meyerhof.
From Hungary there was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian fascist Sales Representative who used Spanish consular credentials to help the Jews of Budapest. Jews were frantically begging to be placed under the protection Franco had offered Sephardic Jews who could trace their roots back to 15th-century Spain. Moved by their plight, Perlasca found a set of consular stamps and without asking anyone in Madrid, began issuing his own "Spanish refugee cards" to Jews--Sephardic or not. "The Swede (Raoul Wallenberg) and I would go to the train station and bluff until we got Jews away by claiming they were our nationals." Tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews may have been saved by the efforts of Perlasca and the other Budapest diplomats. Shortly before his death, Perlasca stated, "These people were in danger and I asked why must someone die because they are of another faith? I had a chance to do something. I couldn't refuse."2
Many more besides these spoke out against the horrible events taking place during this period. However, the numbers of these are few in comparison with those that did so little to condemn or stop the persecution of millions in occupied Germany.
"How can one remain silent," asked Consolation in 1939, "about the horrors of a land where, as in Germany, 40,000 innocent persons are arrested at one time; where 70 of them were executed in a single night in one prison;...where all the homes, institutes and hospitals for aged, the poor, and the helpless, all orphanages for the children, are destroyed?"3
How indeed could one remain silent, but many did. More than a decade and a half ago the publication of Arthur D. Morse's While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, which suggested that while the Nazis were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, they were not the only guilty parties. Such ones were the Western democracies, the Pope, the neutral countries, and the potential refuge nations of South and Central America, because they stood by while 6 million Jews were murdered by Hitler, shared in the guilt and became, in a sense, passive accessories to the most terrible crime in human history.
In the two prewar periods, the critical issue facing the Jewish people was finding a refuge for Jews who wanted, and were able, to flee from the Nazis. The doors to the receiving nations were rapidly closing. Entry to America was governed by a quota system that was rigidly enforced. In part this muted response resulted from the fact that many did not appreciate the danger to which their German coreligionists were exposed. They certainly had no idea of the impending Final Solution, upon which even the Nazi regime did not decide until some time in 1941.
The weakness of this early response was more the result of fear than of incomplete knowledge. But, when one considers the pain and suffering of German Jews in late 1938 and the terrible agony of 907 trapped refugees on the ship St. Louis in June 1939, the reluctance of many to speak out clearly, and demand relief for the victims must be considered a grievous failure, one that ultimately may have cost untold numbers of lives.
It is possible that the tentative nature of the response was the result of an inability on the part of many to comprehend the "facts" of the Final Solution, despite the numerous news reports. Why should anyone have believed something that was inherently unbelievable-namely, that Jews were being killed by the millions for the crime of being Jewish? The crime was unprecedented: "They were accused of living, of having been born," wrote Yehuda Bauer.4 How could anyone comprehend such a possibility?
Aside from the incomprehensible nature of the Final Solution for normal minds, there is a psychological basis for disbelieving the reports about the annihilation of millions of Jews. People often deny those things with which they cannot cope. In the final period of this analysis, the time of the Hungarian deportations, the public response was pitifully weak. The reasons seemed to center around a feeling of hopelessness, helplessness, and fatigue, emotions that were not unique to this period. How much, therefore, could realistically be done by the world? Despair was a realistic state of mind under the circumstances.
How can enough be done if 6 million were killed? And if 1 million had been saved, could one say enough was done? When a people is victimized by genocide, no help can be considered enough. The world could have done much more. There were many options that were not used, from temporary havens to mortgaging immigration quotas for future years, from warning the murderers more often to bombing the camps and the railway lines leading to them. Had the world's power been exerted in behalf of rescue, there is still no guarantee that many lives would have been saved. Ultimately the key to saving lives lay with the murderers rather than even the best intentioned rescuers. This was the unhappy lesson learned by the War Refugee Board.
One looks in vain, for a sign that during this period the world altered some aspect of their lifestyle to indicate the awareness of the plight of their European brothers. There was no need for civil disobedience; some small gesture would have sufficed to keep the matter at the forefront of their consciousness and to generate feelings of sympathy and solidarity.
Among the tragic lessons of the Holocaust, this may have been one of the most instructive. The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by the world, but it should have been unbearable. And it wasn't. This is important, not alone for our understanding of the past, but for our sense of responsibility in the future.
As Edward Yashinsky (a Yiddish poet who survived the Holocaust only to die in a Communist prison in Poland) once wrote:
"Fear not your enemies,
for they can only kill you.
Fear not your friends, for
they can only betray you.
Fear only the indifferent,
who permit the killers and
betrayers to walk safely
on the earth."5
1Rittner, Carol, and Myers, Sondra. The Courage to Care. New York: 1986.
2Chesnoff, Richard Z. "THE OTHER SCHINDLERS." U.S. News and World Report March 21, 1994: 56+.
3"One voice in the midst of Silence." The Awake New York August 22, 1995: 3.
4Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders. New York: 1992.
5Lookstein, Haskel. Were We Our Brother's Keepers? New York: 1985.
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