Devouring Poisonous Mushrooms:
Critical Thinking in Light of the Holocaust

By Caitlin Cass
River Forest, IL


"Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew. They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison-mushroom in existence... "

-from the story "The Poisonous Mushroom"
by Julius Streicher

When I was three I stopped sucking my thumb because my babysitter told me it would turn green and fall off if I did not. I was afraid. Until recently the Holocaust was important to me for much the same reason. I was horrified just thinking about people being treated so badly. The Nazi's were evil. I had learned about Auschwitz, I had seen photographs of prisoners, and knew who Adolf Hitler was. Still, this basic knowledge and blind fear of what had happened was not enough. It did not begin to illuminate the Holocaust's significance.

It was not until I heard the story of "The Poisonous Mushroom" that I began to understand the severity of what had happened. Through a simple children's story that labeled the Jew "the Devil in human form," it had suddenly become clear that Nazi Germany was not a nation of evil, heartless machines; they were human. (Streicher) They had followed their blind sense of nationalism to the mass execution of millions of innocent people. German children had actually read this story. Just as I had feared finishing my childhood thumbless, they had feared a childhood overtaken by poisonous mushrooms. Sitting there reading this story I was suddenly aware of my own vulnerability.

It is easy to become victim to propaganda, just as it is easy for us to categorize every action we come across into two vague categories of good and evil. But it is dangerous. If we view the Nazi's as pure evil they become inhuman and we ignore our own fallibility. We repeat history.
In the past few years the world has seen a resurgence of dangerous generalization. While the U.S. troops fight the "axis of evil" they become desensitized to what is happening around them. As a result enemy prisoners are tortured as they were at Abu Ghraib. Last March-after a two-week break from service—Staff Sergeant Camillo Mejia Castillo refused to return to Iraq. After witnessing the torture of Iraqi prisoners, and watching innocent Iraqi citizens shot in the street, he found it morally impossible to go back. He filed for conscientious objector status and remained at home. The following month Castillo was sentenced to a maximum of one year in prison for desertion.(Amnesty) Meanwhile the soldiers seen in the internationally recognizable photographs, smiling and giving the thumbs up over suffering Iraqi detainees, have not seen punishment. These men and women are guilty of torturing at least five prisoners to death. (Banner) Yet Castillo is the only one who has spent time in prison. It seems incredibly ironic that in our Global War on Terror those punished for war crimes are also those who refuse to participate in torture.

1.6 million people were killed at Auschwitz. Only five were killed at Abu Ghraib, and while this number may increase it certainly will never be comparable to the number of people killed by the Third Reich. Still, Abu Ghraib shows us how important it is that we remember the Holocaust. For if Nazi Germany had been comprised entirely of men like Camillo Mejia Castillo the Holocaust may never have happened.

The horror of the Holocaust can easily be misconstrued. To believe that Hitler was evil, that his followers were evil, that Germany was evil is comfortable. But it misses the point. The things these people did were evil. They were not. This is what makes the Holocaust so frightening.
The most disturbing thing about Hitler's rise to power and the beginning of the Holocaust is the fact that no one stopped it. While there were people who spoke out against it early on many waited until it was too late. The men and women who would later fight for the Third Reich were teenagers when Germany began the slow transition from Democracy to Despotism. Many of them were politically apathetic. "I was fourteen when Hitler came to power and I couldn't have cared less... What do politics have to do with me?" asked one Berlin woman in a 1973 interview. (Switzer) A man named Klaus Budzinski observed that he was often taught more about ancient history then current events in school. Though he loved theater and often went to see political plays he never made a connection between theater and real life. "That was one of the worst features of the way most of us were educated... we were simply unable to draw conclusions. Or perhaps our teachers and our parents deliberately tried to protect us from real life, either because they thought of us as children, or because they were already vaguely frightened about the future and didn't want to become involved themselves." (Switzer)

I admit, that in the past few years I have become more and more politically apathetic. Watching the World Trade Center go down over and over again on television got old. I stopped trying to follow what was going on. I hadn't even seen the photographs from Abu Ghraib until I started this project. I know that there are a lot of people like me. But in light of the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib and the way it was handled by our country we all could benefit from remembering why the Holocaust occurred.

I began sucking my thumb again shortly after I stopped because I realized it really wasn't going to fall off. It was years later when I saw how ridiculous I looked and how my overbite was increasing daily that I stopped for good. I only hope that I can learn to think as critically about politics as I did about sucking my thumb. We should all learn how to do so. It is our responsibility to remember the story of the poisonous mushroom and think critically about our actions. In school we should learn why things happened and not just that they happened. When we think of the Holocaust we should not recall the existence of an evil regime but remember man's vulnerability to do evil things. Instead of running away from the overwhelming amount of news pouring in hourly from millions of different sources, we should seek it out. In order to prevent violence in our world we should remember the Holocaust and as students we should devour all the poisonous mushrooms we can find with a critic's palate.

Works Cited

Amnesty International. "USA: Prisoner of Conscience, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia Castillo." Amnesty International . 3 June 2004.

Amnesty International. 7 Feb. 2005 <>.

Danner, Mark. Torture and Truth: America Abu Ghraib and The War on Terror. New York: New York Review Books, 2004.

"The Poisonous Mushroom." German Propaganda Archive. Calvin College. 7 Feb. 2005 <>.

Switzer, Ellen. How Democracy Failed. New York: Atheneum, 1975.


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