Lessons From My Grandfather
On a crisp April day in 1945, my grandfather, Lt. Albert Paul, in Patton’s 3rd Army, helped to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp and to his horror learned first-hand about the Holocaust. He had survived the landing at Normandy, being caught behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, and building the bridge at Remagan across the Rhine while under the fire. He had faced death before, but nothing had prepared him for what he witnessed. Piles of decomposing flesh lay before him, as well as the withered remains of people, whom by the grace of God, had barely survived. He could speak to many of them in Yiddish, and he learned of what had happened. That night as he wrote his report in his barren tent, lit only by the single light of a bare bulb, he burst into tears. It was one of the only times he had cried as an adult. The next day, he learned that the people who had committed this atrocity were not madmen or sadists but were rational and educated. Many of the murderers held degrees from the finest medical schools.1 My grandfather had seen what happens when science is used to devalue human life.
The Nazis did not originate the concept of scientific racism. Its origins lie at the finest universities of America and Europe. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book, The Mismeasure of Man, documents how science detoured down a path which led to the sterilization of mentally retarded people, the “scientific proof” of Negro, Jewish and Irish inferiority, as well as to the institution of Eugenics departments at Cold Spring Harbor, Brown, and Yale.2 The Nazis enlisted the help of these professors and physicians to first sterilize mentally retard people, later homosexuals, and finally gypsies and Jews. How such an erudite society could willing allow the legalization of mass murder stands as a reminder to our generation of the need for higher principles to keep society in balance. We cannot allow scientific fad or theories to uproot principles that have led to our civility. Science must play an important role in the fact-finding, but it is through inter-disciplinary study that the right directions a society should venture will be found.
Dehumanization can only occur when there is a chasm between the moral values of a society and its leadership. The power of America is its self-definition as a “country steeped in the Judeo-Christian values.”3 A core American belief is that each human life is sacred. Jefferson summed it up best when he said, “We hold these truths to be self evident, all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”4 The Nazis were quick to orchestrate the removal of traditional moral thought in Germany by instituting their “Religion of the Blood” and effectively turning their back on organized religion.5 Thus, they separated themselves from the moral feedback that these organizations could have provided. Even more, the Nazi deviously and successfully convinced their countrymen to stand idly by while they officially robbed the Jews of their political and social rights. It must be remembered that it was the American Congregational Church that started the abolitionist movement in this country.6 An important lesson of the Holocaust is that we must never let society abandon its morality for even the most justifiable of reasons.
Another lesson of the Holocaust is how a government must protect itself from the whims of a people or a despot. Hitler was a capable speaker who could arouse a passion in all types of people by presenting a diatribe suited for his audience. He knew the catch phrases and the ability to enrage a mob. The brilliance of America’s constitution is the recognition that no one individual has all the answers-even if every indication is that they do. Our country is stronger because of the built-in checks and balances that slow the changes that the whims of people or a gifted orator might want to strangle us with. Our founding fathers realized that they must have a system to slow the potentially volatile nature of large groups of people. Nazism fed on this irrationality. America feeds on its slow compassion and thoughtfulness. Our country will suffer a severe blow if this protective structure is ever allowed to deteriorate. The Holocaust has taught us that no one should make up all the rules.
Since the Holocaust, Americans have believed that nothing of that magnitude could happen in America. After September 11th when the unthinkable happened, America emerged changed for ever. Osama Bin Laden had hoped it would destroy our spirit, but instead we emerged from the rubble a nation more caring and concerned for each other. Our resolve for tolerating all people was enhanced from the numerous images of Blacks helping Whites, Jews helping Arabs, and our public employees helping everyone. We also emerged ready to do what it takes to preserve our freedom, and ready to fight terrorism where ever the battle may take us. America’s power has always been its diversity. We must remain a nation committed to the rights of all people.
The Holocaust has shown us that it is a hard struggle for humans of
different backgrounds and cultures to tolerate each other. September 11th
strengthened our love of each other. It is our memory of the Holocaust
that keeps us committed to a world filled with tolerance and diversity. We
emerged from the rubble of September 11th committed to our ethos of the
sanctity of human life. We know we are here to make the world a better
place, and not here to ensure our place in some form of a martyr’s heaven.
1 Lipton, Robert
Jay, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and The Psychology of Genocide,
Basic Books, New York, 1986.
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