On July 19, 2004,1 visited my first Jewish
cemetery. However, this wasn't any ordinary Jewish cemetery with beautiful
Hebrew text inscribed on magnificent stones. This grassy, barren land on
which I stood before had seen no honorable ceremonies to bury the dead. In
fact, there was really nothing to denote the hundreds of thousands, if not
millions, who lay there. This haunted place, this "forced" cemetery was
not the burial ground of choice for the millions who perished there. This
cemetery was the result of a an unprecedented attempt at genocide that
under Nazi guidance would extirpate millions of Jewish people; and within
the hellish fires of this cemetery, an attempt would be made to completely
obliterate a millennium of Jewish achievement throughout Europe. The
accursed cemetery I have desribed is the one at Birkenau, Poland.
As I stood on the ruins of Crematorium II, I began to record various thoughts on the Holocaust, and contemplated why a history as inconceivably horrendous as this one should be a legacy to future generations. My thoughts could have filled volumes.
"The fact of six million Jews and some millions of other people put to death for ideological and racial reasons carries tremendous weight in itself. Yet, even genocide does not explain the peculiar hold of the Holocaust on our consciousness." (Terrell, 1994, p. 170) Holocaust history is undeniably unique. But what can it teach the future generations? The Holocaust was more than genocide; it was an assault on every facet of Jewish existence. Hitler simply did not want the Jews gone; he wanted every last vestige of their influence obliterated from anything considered "Aryan," a hallowed word. Future generations need to perceive that the Holocaust wasn't simply a decision to kill Jewish people. Hitler called for a holy war, a spiritual jihad. This spiritual battle against Judaism encompassed most of the European expanse, with many countries working together to deport their Jewish population to death. As a result of this fervor, the magnitude of the Holocaust and its perpetrators are immense.
This holy war revived medieval barbarity
which in contemporary settings led to Judaic assaults: the Jewish star,
the ghetto, and the placement of "Sara" and "Abraham" on all Jewish
identification cards. What is most shocking, though, is that this era was
the first time that the Jews were singled out pan-bureaucratically and
not, as in ancient accusations, for blood libel. This barbarity led to
meticulous laws that were enacted to destroy the Jewish people socially
Infinite lessons have come from the ashes of the Shoah. We intellectually debate them now, but why should the future be prepared to debate the unexplainable? It is exactly because of the intellectual ability of man. If lessons are not passed on to future generations, could man delude his thinking again? It is a known fact that the Nazis were fixated by "semi-religious beliefs in the race of Aryan god-men... extermination of others, and a wonderful millennial future of German-world domination." (Goodrich-Clarke, 2004, p. 203-4) It is easy to look back in hindsight and ask: "How could such a nation belief such inane things?" The answer is that many of the leading Nazis used "intellectual" reasoning to justify the genocide of the Jewish people. Frightening, isn't it?
Democracy is a privilege, not always a guaranteed right. As in Germany in the transitional 1932-33 year, it could be ousted, and that leads us back to Birkenau.
Birkenau became largely a world-wide and diplomatic affair by July 1944. The world watched in stunned incredulity and tried to find various methods to destroy that terrible place. Conferences were held, ideas to bomb the railways were proposed, but yet the world remained inert. World-wide governments had ample knowledge, and every country condemned the probable deportation of Hungarian Jewry. What was done? Elie Wiesel puts it, "The world was silent." The trains soon began aussiedlung (deportation), and 400, 000 innocent Jewish lives met their fate in the modern Birkenau gas chambers. Will the future generation see that a government's knowledge of atrocities will not always result in the end of man-made hell? A government could be the perpetrator. The lessons of the Holocaust reveal truths about mankind, and its transmission is imperative.
Martin Gilbert's book The Holocaust concluded with an epilogue title "I Will Tell the World." This is exactly what must be done. The remembrance of the Holocaust should be fiercely guarded and preserved for the future. A voice should be given to the Jewish community such as in Poland where ancient Jewish establishments were obliterated, and the religious items, in a bitter irony, were used to humiliate Jewish victims. A voice should be given to the Jews who perished in a state-of-the-art fashion, leaving the world disbelieving until the end and which still have people in denial today. Denial calls for remembrance. Movies like Schindler 's List and the nation-wide Shoah project will ensure the immortality of Holocaust projects. The miles of historical testimony obtained from projects of this nature will only guarantee the Holocaust, in all its inexplicable horror, will be remembered.
An anti-Semitic trend in Europe today: "Attackers, shouting racist slogans, throw rocks at [Jewish] schoolchildren...Jewish homes, schools, and synagogues are firebombed...Jewish cemeteries desecrated with anti-Jewish slogans." (Zuckerman, 2003, p.46) These attacks are very grave, but why are such crimes being committed in contemporary settings? The reason is silence as a result of simple fear. We students need to take a stand and not be silent. Silence is what kills. Chiefly, that is the main thing I believe all students can do to combat prejudice. Take a stand! Silence is never the response. The power of the people can be an inexorable force. The people of Belgium are an honorable example. They collectively took a stand against Nazi measures to deport the Jewish people.
The concept of taking a stand needs to be introduced into classrooms. Teaching examples of times when the public was not silent, as in the case of Belgium should be used to show that it is acceptable to be a voice against oppression and injustice. (Arendt, 1963) A single voice will influence.
As I left Birkenau, something entered my mind: Israel, a country to show the world the tenacity of the Jewish people; every nation who has dared to eliminate them has ended in destruction. Their suffering will not go unheard.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing, 1963
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1985
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicolas. The Occult Roots of Nazism. New York, NY: New York Publishing Press, 1985
Terrell, Richard. Resurrecting the Third Reich. Lafayette, Louisiana: Huntington House Publishers, 1994
Zuckerman, Mortimer. "The New Anti-Semitism." U.S. News 3 Jan. 2003: 46.
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