I will tell you a story. However, I must warn you in advance, it is but scant. I could embellish the wording, and yet you would feel the emptiness. My grandfather did not go to a concentration camp. As a young Jewish man living in Romania in the 1940s he saw the shadow of Hitler approaching Bucharest. He fled to the Soviet Union, believing that conditions there would be better. He was wrong. For years he toiled in the gulags of Siberia. You expect heart-wrenching words to come next. I cannot relate them. I do not know them. I place no harsh judgment on the story’s lacking. I simply wish less of it had vanished with a man’s last breath eight years ago. He did not tell his story often, because it was too painful; it was a layer of consciousness too sharp to let his thoughts linger on. This theme of an inability to tell, to want to recollect recurs An individual merely politely nods off this apparent social discomfiture, and not till it is too late does he realize that in his silence, he has allowed a bit of history to evaporate, and hate to triumph cunningly again. Perhaps that is the most appalling aspect of his tale—the lack of it. One sees clearly the destruction overt aggression renders towards a body, a building. What is less obvious is the ability of a human’s pure, unabashed hate to singe the soul of another human into a state in which he is willing to bodily resist, but will no longer reveal that part of himself that would have opened the world’s eyes to denounce such human cruelty.
For most, the mention of “Holocaust” renders associations of barbarism and pain, emaciated bodies and “evil” Nazis. The pictures taken at the time of liberation are immeasurably important testaments to truth. But our reactions to those photographs depict the folly of humanity’s understanding of good and evil. We assume our enemies to be horrific and our allies to be angelic. In truth, the world is not so clear. The Germans of the 1930s were hardly uncouth. They were the descendants of Martin Luther, Goethe, and Leibniz. From their soil had emerged the philosophy of Marx, the music of Mozart (Goldhagen 55). We therefore assume that it was not lack of refinement that prompted the murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, and social outcasts. Upon closer examination, we uncover a rather appalling truth. What prompted this disaster seems inherent in each of us—a propensity for prejudice, superstition, and abhorrence.
The essence of the mass killing of Jews during the Holocaust lies in hatred and a human inclination towards succumbing to social pressures. Whatever philosophical wrangling surrounds this statement, it seems obvious that hatred lives within each one of us. It is for this reason that the remembrance of the Holocaust is so imperative. From the time we are young, we scream “geek”, “ugly”. Each of us appears to derive purpose from our resentments; our belief in individual superiority makes us confident in our ability to succeed. Nazi ideology and propaganda, reinforced by generations old Germanic anti-Semitism, preached that Jews were responsible for the economic and social ills of Germany in the years following World War I. From these beliefs, it logically followed that extermination of the “vermin” would welcome in an era of prosperity in Germany. By that same flow of reason, the Israelis today are said to be responsible for Palestinian poverty. Immigrants and dependents serve as scapegoats for the deterioration of our fiscal health because of the burden they place on welfare and healthcare systems. But how could people kill so readily, one asks. Several psychological studies, the most famous by Milligram, proved that, “Some were totally convinced of the wrongness of what they were doing but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority” Soldiers fulfilled orders, partly fueled by anti-Semitism, partly by fear of being deemed weak, and partly by a horrible form of “work ethic.” (Valentino 47).
As citizens, we must open our eyes to the impregnation of contemporary intellectual doctrines with undercurrents of anti-Semitism andracial hatred. Daniel Goldhagen, leading advocate of the “willing executioner” theory, contends that it was the Nazi’s conception that Jews and Slavs were immeasurably inferior that made it so easy to kill them (Goldhagen 5). Hitler’s captivation with evolutionary theory stimulated the Nazi belief that instead of permitting natural forces and chance to control evolution, it was their duty to “advance” the human race. The first step towards achieving this goal was to isolate the “subordinate races” in order to prevent contamination of the Aryan “gene pool”. The widespread public advocacy of this idea was resulted from the belief, common among the educated, that certain races were genetically inferior as was scientifically ‘proven’ by Darwinism (Bergman). In these fragments of history lie the irony of the Holocaust—it was a crusade of the academic as well. Modern ideas were simply being implemented to pave the way for a more rational, beautiful world.
From such historical lessons, justifications for the propagation of an accurate view of democracy’s role in the world emerge. We do not spread democracy to “civilize brutes.” Nor do we institute our political systems to assert the pre-eminence of the “white man” or to create a “white man’s world.”
And so how does one teach children about the Holocaust? One must preach a doctrine seemingly foreign to the human mind: that superiority is a figment of the human imagination. Animalistic tendencies to purge and kill for the glory and wealth must become the tales of history. A child must be told he his great, but not infinitely greater. He or she must take responsibility, not blame.
Students carry the burden of not falling prey to the lure of social doctrines that would lead them to deny the existence of the Holocaust. They must acknowledge that intellectualism and the concept of a “new generation” do not always mean breaking with previously held beliefs, especially if those beliefs encompassed tolerance. A scholar must seek truth based on facts, not on the sways of lusts for power that created Totalitarian regimes. Ours and proceeding generations will bear a heavy burden. As the world quakes under the weight of fundamentalism, Holocaust deniers will surface ever more rapidly, and those who have not been taught the truth, heard the stories, or seen the pictures, will not withstand the pressure and float upon the sea of hatred. It will be the deniers who ignored history. Hatred breeds death. It is that simple. History has shown us so. Germany, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia proved that in this century alone. Perhaps it is time we gained reverence for the voices of the past. Our generation must understand its duty not to stand in silence.
Valentino, Benjamin. Final
Solutions: Mass Killings and Genocide in the 20th Century. New York:
Cornell University Press, 2004.
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