The Escalating Grip of Prejudice

By Erin McDermid
Ft. Pierce, Florida


 

Physical hunger, emotional shame, spiritual hopelessness - World War I left the German people desperate for change and longing for a savior to deliver their nation from the severe economic hardships, the deep humiliation of defeat, and the total lack of faith in the leadership of their government. These conditions provided the ideal climate for an evil force to take root and flourish unchecked. Adolf Hitler offered the German people hope for the future, but the helping hand he extended was actually an accusing finger pointing at those he considered inferior and defective; eventually, the "helping" hand wrapped itself around the throats of over 11 million people in a death grip -- the likes of which the world had never seen.

In spite of the economic depression, spiraling unemployment, and burgeoning inflation, European youth grew and developed with hearts full of hope and dreams for the future held universally by young people everywhere (Bachrach Intro). The normal rhythm of life for these children was abruptly interrupted on January 30, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Hitler's pointed finger singled out the Jewish children and their parents, not for anything they had done, but as the scapegoats upon which all the nation's disastrous conditions could be blamed. Combining his malignant prejudice with the abuse of his position's power, Hitler cultivated old, deep-rooted anti-Semitic feelings as the seeds of hatred he planted in the Aryan race began to germinate (Berenbaum 16). The roots of prejudice were fertilized by a constant stream of malicious words spewed forth by Hitler, a single voice which led the echoing chorus of hate- filled voices chanting slogans such as "Filthy Jews" and "Jews are our misfortune." All this zealous propaganda was intended to widen the psychological separation of the Jews and the Germans (Tatelbaum 28). These negative labels, spoken slurs, and degrading remarks were the first step in Hitler's plan of destruction and dehumanization. Hitler's condemning finger of blame began to be transformed into an open hand that was positioned in such a way as to separate the "superior" Aryan race from the thousands of Gypsies, the physically and mentally disabled, the Soviet prisoners of war, the homosexuals, the Catholics, the Poles, and the Jews, all of whom who did not fit Hitler's prototype of perfection (Feil 2). In an effort to remove all non-Aryans from Germany's economic life, the Nazis declared a nationwide boycott of all Jewish businesses. On the announced day of the boycott, storm troopers stood menacingly in front of the Jewish owned shops and threatened anyone who dared to enter. The six-pointed "Star of David" was garishly painted in yellow and black across thousands of doors and windows. Signs were posted which dictated , "Don't buy from the Jews" (Bachrach 14) The Nazis' hands were used not only to segregate themselves and to keep the Jews at a distance, but also to be raised in a show of total compliance and adoration of their leader which bordered on blind worship.

This climate of disparaging prejudice soon became a blatant, oppressive atmosphere of discrimination in which the "hand of justice" wrote edicts designed to separate the Jews physically from the rest of the German population and strip them of all their civil rights (Baudot 16). On September 30, 1935, the Nuhremberg Race Laws, the first institutionalized apartheid between Germans and Jews, were effectively introduced and passed (Wistrich 71). These laws were designed to force Jews to quit civil service jobs, to remove themselves from other areas of public life, to withdraw their children from public school, and to relinquish ownership of their tangible possessions while non-Jewish shops were forced to display signs that read, "Jews not admitted" ( Wistrich 73 ). The Nazis' grip of control tightened as the Party dictated the content of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, and radio. All viewpoints threatening Nazi beliefs were censored or eliminated from the media completely (Bachrach 13). By 1939, Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David on their chests or bear the blue and white Star of David on their arms as an obvious identity badge, so they could be more easily singled out as objects for ridicule and harassment ("Holocaust" 159c). Anna, a 13 year old from Holland, recounts the unwanted attention she received because of the Jewish hallmark she carried. "We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work. You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn't offer us a lift: the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself" (Tatelbaum 57). A sense of unworthiness began to pervade the lives which had once been full of promise. Hitler's crushing hand finally held the destiny of the Jews in a strangling grip.

A random act of violence by a young Jewish refugee in Paris was the spark that ignited the smoldering German prejudices into a rampant blaze of physical assault. This act served as an excuse for "spontaneous demonstrations," which had actually been planned weeks in advance by the Nazis ( "Holocaust" 159c ). Every synagogue in Germany was cruelly burned down or demolished, many Jewish businesses were callously destroyed or vandalized, and several hundred Jews were murdered or seriously wounded (Wistrich 73) . The Nazi venom was released unchecked on the Jews, and it was not only allowed but encouraged by the lack of any restraint on the part of the Germans. Corrie ten Boom recalled the passivity of the "helpers" on that terrible night. "A synagogue burned down and the firetrucks came. But only to keep the flames from spreading to the buildings on either side" (68) . The Jews were doubly victimized after that night. Not only were their synagogues, homes, and businesses burned and destroyed, they were forced to pay for reparation. This premeditated event of raging violence, known as Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"), ushered in the first systematic roundup of the German and Austrian Jews (Baudot 17). Hitler's hand reached for the machine guns, loaded, aimed, and readied to fire. In one incident at Babi Yar, 33,771 Jews were marched into a ravine, forced to dig trenches for their own graves, commanded to remove their clothing, and then slaughtered in a systematic barrage of gunfire. Many non-Aryans were gathered from every corner of the continent and directed into ghettos, where interactions with the "outside world" were banned. Having first been expelled from their regular employment, then excluded from the cultural life, this imposed segregation into special neighborhoods was the next step in the steady progression of this abominable prejudice:

The ghetto society miniaturized all human development from creation to decay. In the beginning it constituted a mass of beings crowded haphazardly together to serve an indefinite period for the criminal act of belonging to the lowest human race. Dislocation, loss of family life, sudden deprivation of purpose, close encounters with atrocities perpetrated by one person upon another, left them in a state of shock. The ghetto was an amorphous world, condemned, it seemed, to perpetual darkness, its inhabitants obsessed only with survival of themselves and anyone dear to them...Terror was the low cloud hanging over the ghetto. (Litvinoff 340)

In this oppressive environment, the Jews thought that life had gotten as bad as it could get, but they had no idea that Hitler's next step would be the most maniacal plan yet devised.

Every attempt to achieve racial purity in Europe fell short of its mark. Large scale massacres were too time-consuming, and the Nazis thought that too much ammunition was being wasted. The ghettoization was unsuccessful because it was only a temporary displacement of the Jews not a permanent purging from the "pure" society. Hitler's irrational hatred culminated in his "Final Solution," genocide would insure that the Aryan race would be forever protected from the toxic contamination of the Jews. Concentration camps, which had earlier served as labor camps, now became killing centers. Thousands of people were gassed to death every day, and their bodies were burned in giant ovens. Trains arrived from all over Europe delivering millions of men, women, and children to their barbed wire kingdoms of annihilation. Having already been stripped of their humanity, upon arrival at camp they were ordered to undress and were tattooed with a number that served to further reduce them to something subhuman. Jacob recalls, "The head of the concentration camp said to us: From now on you are all numbers. You have no identity. You have no place or origin. All you have is a number. Except for the number you have nothing" (Tatelbaum 108). The savagery of what occurred is beyond rational comprehension. Hitler's strangle hold continued until life was brutally choked out of 11 million civilians, six million of whom were Jews.

The Holocaust did not begin with genocide. The diabolic scheme began with subtle spoken abuses whereby people learned to think with labels (Morias 241). The cornerstone of this heinous plot was the labeling of those considered to be "different", which really meant "inferior" and became translated into "someone to be feared." Building upon this jaundiced foundation came the arrogant rejection of large masses of people, the haughty dismissal of their humanity, and then the blatant exclusion of them to protect "the innocent.". The supreme answer for "purity" finally rested in the ultimate separation: the gap between the living and the dead. Labeling and cataloguing people are simpleton ways that substitute for really learning about and understanding others. The world must never again allow itself to be imprisoned by the replacement of truth with hasty judgments. Every human being must be vigilant not to allow stereotypes to substitute for the affirmation of the intrinsic value of each individual. An effective strategy to counteract an escalating grip of prejudice from recurring, is to join our hands with each other in a circle of universal brotherhood. Our hands serve as vehicles of service, compassion, and love; mine are raised to all the victims of the Holocaust in a solemn tribute... I salute you....

...I will never forget..

 

Works Cited

 

Auerbacher, Inge. I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust. New York: Prentice Hall, 1986.

Bachrach, Susan D. Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust. Boston: Little,

Brown, 1994.

Baudot, Marcel, et al., eds. The Historical Encyclopedia of World War II. New York:

Greenwich House, 1977.

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993.

Feil, J., Dave, K., and Dale, M. The Holocaust. A Tragic Legacy. Site and Media Created by

Think Quest. Holocaust Team.

"Holocaust." The New Book Of Knowledge. Vol.H. Danbury, CT: Grolier, 1995.

Litvinoff, Barnet. The Burning Bush. Anti-Semitism and World History. New York: E.P.Dutton, 1988.

Morais, Vamberto. A Short History of Anti-Semitism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Tatelbaum, ltzhak. Through Our Eyes: Children Witness the Holocaust. Chicago: I.B.T.

Publishing, 1985.

ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiring Place. Carmel, New York: Guideposts Associates, Inc., 1971.

Wistrich, Robert. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of 
Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.


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