I Did Not Cry
I did not cry the
first time I learned about the Holocaust. I did not cry, and that is why
the legacy of the Holocaust must be passed on. The brutal murders of
millions of innocents, worked to exhaustion, starved to emaciation,
hollowed to godlessness, numbered, gassed, beaten, burned, bloodied,
bruised: these agonies drew from me no tears. And so was I like the
witnesses to the Holocaust, the bystanders immediately after the war, and
the silent observers of today’s injustices. These individuals shared a
pitiless indifference for suffering, a preference for easy silence over
morally demanding protest. Holocaust survivor Robert O. Fisch mourned
that, “I cried out against the brutality, but no one listened” (Fisch 12).
Therein lies the reason that genocide can take place, even among the
world’s most civilized peoples in the world’s most advanced societies: no
one listened to sufferers during the Holocaust, and now, sixty years
later, no one listens still. The human capacity for cruelty rivals only
that for apathy.
In the early 1930’s, lack of resistance from the German people allowed Adolph Hitler to implement laws legalizing injustice and suppression. The 1933 Law for the Protection of the German People restricted freedom of speech, press, and demonstration, setting the stage for further revocation of rights; citizens of Germany, however, gained employment and income for the first time since World War I, and thus did not speak out against the loss of freedoms (Ayer 5). This failure to protest their own loss of liberty foreshadowed a similar acceptance of loss of liberty for Jews and other non-Aryans. Indeed, only two months later, the Law for Preventing Overcrowding in German Schools denied non-Aryans admittance to schools; in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws denied Jews citizenship (Boyer 862). Because the German people still did not speak out, Hitler proceeded to prepare the nation for his “Final Solution” of total extermination.
As Nazi violations of Jewish rights grew less peaceable and more violent, German citizens continued to do nothing; instead, they stood idly by as their fellow man was murdered. November 9, 1938, marked Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on which Nazi violence reached a heretofore unknown peak. One Nazi official recounted a woman whose husband was shipped to a concentration camp that night: “[She shouted,] ‘Come back…For G-D’s sake, come back and get your coat.’ Then she whirled around at the circle of silent faces staring from the sidewalks and windows, neighbors she had known all her life, and she screamed, ‘Why are you people doing this to us?’ ” (Ayer 30). The woman’s condemnation of her silent neighbors, rather than of her physical aggressors, reveals that acceptance and indifference wound even more deeply than corporeal blows. Her anguished words reveal the guilt of the silent.
Local communities’ failure to help the Jewish people paralleled the identical failure of other nations to extend aid; inaction had spread even across the globe. Asked in 1938 if United States immigration laws should be expanded to encompass “a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany,” 75% of the American population said no (Boyer 863). One year later, June 1939, nearly 940 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution on the St. Louis were denied entrance to Havana, Cuba. The ship’s captain requested permission to land in Florida instead, but the United States government refused, and passengers were shipped back to die in Nazi concentration camps (Voyage of the St. Louis). At the same time, 66% of Americans expressed opposition to the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which planned to admit 20,000 Jewish children into America; the Bill did not even reach the Senate (Boyer 863). Global indifference to the plights of the persecuted had effectively allowed genocide to take place during World War II, condoning the Holocaust through the refusal to actively condemn it.
Genocide, hatred, and brutality still exist in the world today, but more troublingly, apathy still exists and thrives in today’s world. After seeing photographs of the Holocaust’s carnage, “piles of naked, lifeless bodies, human skeletons in furnaces, living skeletons who would die the next day…pieces of tattooed skin for lampshades,” (Ayer 180), accepting neighbors and silent witnesses still watch injustice with closed lips and calm arms. Today, government officials draw a distinction between feeling concerned and acting on that concern. However, apathy and inaction are inextricable from one another: where there is true concern, there is action; where there is inaction, there is no true concern. In Sudan, for example, government soldiers in the western region of Darfur have displaced 1.5 million people and murdered over 300,000 to date (Sudan: Darfur). The United States took a position of so-called sympathy with the victims, but refused to use the term “genocide” to describe the situation until mid-2004 (Sudan: Darfur). This reluctance stemmed from the United States’ legal obligation to fight genocide in a situation recognized as such; the United States had refused to assign the circumstances their proper name to avoid combating Sudanese injustice. Apathy, resistance to act against wrong, thus surfaced in today’s world as it did during the Holocaust, in the detached observations of murder that effectively endorsed it.
We must teach the Holocaust to generations to come, that apathy may be recognized as a menace, as the tool through which men shrug at cruelty, nod at torture, and smile at murder. Students today who have already learned this lesson are obligated to teach others, for prejudice and discrimination can be eradicated throughout the world only after they have been eradicated from every student’s own community. Students must thus teach their peers the dangers of apathy by writing editorials to school or community newspapers, speaking to fellow students in and out of school, and setting an example of acceptance and active support. Using as examples the Holocaust, genocide in Sudan and other nations, and intolerance within their own schools, students can illustrate the menace of indifference, enlightening others on the necessity of care and action against wrongs. Students can mold individuals unwilling to accept injustice, individuals who will fight cruelty and will not allow the apathy that created one Holocaust to create another.
Now, I learn of the Holocaust with emotion, knowing that my ability to feel and desire to act distinguish me from those who perpetrate the evils of genocide. Now, I feel rivulets on my cheeks and taste salt on my lips, my face dampened by waters like the Dead Sea on which the bodies of the dead can float, weightless, as their souls never could on Earth. Now, I understand what weighed so heavily on the hearts of those innocents. I know of the apathy of their fellow human beings, and I know what could have been done, what I can do, to eradicate the indifference that allowed the Holocaust to take place.
Now, I cry.
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