Affirming Our Humanity
In the end, it is the bleak factual timeline of World War II that hits me the hardest. Growing up in a Jewish family and attending a Jewish school, I’ve had plenty of exposure to the Holocaust. I have walked through Yad Vashem in Israel, taken a Jewish history course that detailed the loss of European Jewry, and commemorated Yom Hashoah every year along with my Jewish community. But as I read through a dispassionate account of the murder of eleven million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Ukrainians, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and others, I break down fully for the first time. To see the dates, the numbers, the utter monstrosity of the details that appear in contrast to the document’s official tone—“May 16, 1944: the SS [the Schutzstaffel, the elite Nazi military unit] reports collecting 88 pounds of gold and white metal from the teeth of those gassed” (3)—shocks my comprehension. It is the stark objectivity that finally makes the Holocaust frightening in its actuality.
But how could I have remained blunted for so long to the horrors of the stories I heard? My capacity for apathy was possible only because the ephemeral nature of time invites a perspective of history as part of a remote past. Ensconced in my own immediate world, I could safely shunt the Holocaust to a back recess of my mind, to inhabit the murky area of the past. The stories were shrouded under the lens of bygone history and so could be illuminated with the quality of romantic tragedy—one that obscured the hellish reality.
It is this very sense of the Holocaust as transitory that we must combat. We must not, cannot, look at it simply as a tragedy of the past, as a story that ended over sixty years ago with the defeat of Hitler and the Nazi party. We must instead look at the Holocaust as a constant, recurring presence in our lives. It is vital that we learn about the Holocaust in depth, examining all aspects of its history so that its existence becomes real to us; we can do this only through an in-depth, holistic approach to Holocaust study. Different angles of history touch each of us in different ways, so we must learn through personal accounts, historical analyses, literature, statistics, and pictures to reach an understanding of the Holocaust in its full dimensions. For its direct relevance to our lives and to our understanding of our role in the world as human beings is clear: the Holocaust forces us to face and recognize the human capacity for utter depravity.
The Holocaust saw the perpetuation of a
crime so monstrous that a new word—genocide—was necessary to define it
(5). But that word grew to become a common part of our vocabulary as we
faced—and continue to face—large scale displays of supreme evil.
Thirteen years ago, more than 800,000 people in Rwanda were massacred in
a period of a hundred days; a genocide that began in Darfur four years
ago continues unabated today, and estimates place the number of those
killed around 400,000 (6). Genocide has occurred so often in the past
fifty years that the words “Never Again” have become a mockery of our
hypocrisy. It has happened again and again—and this is why the Holocaust
And it is this side of human nature which we must face. We must learn about the Holocaust in order to learn fear, a fear that drives action instead of apathy. This fear is necessary in a world that has become immune to overseas reports of displacement, starvation, rape, and murder.
Yet it is easy to become overwhelmed and crushed by our recognition of the human potentiality for such cruelty. So we must look as well into the stories of resistance in the concentration camps, for they are testimony to the triumph of the human spirit. A Holocaust survivor, Hermann Langbein declares, “Such resistance is convincing proof that an inhumane regime, although it can murder people, cannot completely stamp out human impulses on the part of others” (3). For the prisoners were not passive or submissive as they faced their imminent deaths. Rather, there were countless instances of resistance as tormented and broken individuals summoned the strength to struggle and survive “in defiance of an inconceivably brutal and totally effective system of terror—resistance to the killing of human beings and of everything human, and not just individual resistance, but organized resistance” (4). At the death camp of Sobibor, for example, 300 prisoners staged an attack against the SS men who guarded the camp in order to escape (4). And in the Warsaw Ghetto, a group of Jewish youth formed the Jewish Fighting Organization and fought against German troops with a small supply of weapons they had smuggled into the ghetto (2). Such acts of rebellion reveal the resilience of the human spirit during a time of inconceivable horror—and teach us that opposition to evil is possible.
The stories of resistance give us hope as they attest to the nobility of human nature; they remind us that our fear must motivate, rather than paralyze us. And this knowledge of our past that reveals both the consequences and the possibilities forces our response today. We—who live in a country based upon the precept that every single person has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and who have the ability to affect so many changes in the world—must oppose every violation of these basic rights. We must speak out against a government that refuses to take decisive action in Darfur against mass murder, stand strong in rallies to urge action, educate others to raise awareness, and demand an end to the genocide without compromises. For in the Holocaust, we recognize the dichotomous natures of man; we see both the basest instincts and the highest, most noble impulses. And it is crucial that we fully recognize the potential of the worst in humanity, understanding the Holocaust as warning of that within ourselves, that we may rise to the challenge of accepting our moral calling.
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