Today marks the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-run concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau where more than one million people died or were killed by the Nazis. The United Nations designated this day International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Why would anyone study the Holocaust? What makes the Holocaust stand out from other mass murders of the twentieth century is the sort of place that perpetrates it (an advanced country) and the cause that propelled it, race. We must learn about it to act effectively to prevent a recurrence. I believe that includes the includes the teaching about the wrong’s our government have committed against other ethnic groups and minorities such as slavery, the Jim Crow laws, the forced migration of native American Indians, and Japanese-American Internment camps. You can not sugarcoat history. It must be taught truthfully. One might say, why look ourselves as a society? We need to look at ourselves as a society to prevent making conditions possible for genocide to take place.
The book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes approached the topic into four primary questions: Why the Jews?, Why the Germans? Why murder?, and Why the eradication of the Jews was so nearly successful, resulting in the deaths of two-thirds of those in Europe and at least three-quarters of those within reach of the Nazis? What stood out to me in this book was Why the Germans? The short answer is because a massive multidimensional national crisis and social upheavals, open the way for believers in this hatred to acquire power and to reinforce or indoctrinate others in their views.
The Nuremberg Laws enacted in 1935 removed Jews of their civil rights. Hungary and Italy also passed similar laws restricting the rights of Jewish citizens. As these laws went into effect, it became more and more dangerous for Jews to stay in Germany. It was difficult to leave due to the law requiring them to give up 90% of their wealth as a tax, and this made it impossible for another country to take them. When mass deportation schemes such as the Madagascar Plan failed, the Nazis started the mass extermination of the Jews in Europe.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness”–Eli Wiesel.
I had the opportunity to hear a first-person account of a Holocaust survivor last November. Manuela Bornstein was born in Paris, France, to a Dutch father and a German mother. In July 1942, the French police concentrated 13,000 Jews in the Velodrome d’Hiver sports arena in Paris for days without food and water before deporting them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Manuela, her parents, and sister narrowly escaped this major deportation through the help of some friends who were active members of the French resistance. She lost about 200 members of her extended family during the 29 months she and her immediate family spent hiding in a house in the small village of Le Got in southern France. Manuela was a strong woman to speak to us. She would tear up even after 70 plus years, telling us her experiences. I am very fortunate to have heard her and the opportunity for my younger daughter to hear her experiences as well.
“Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness, and they can spread the word.”
I am of Jewish descent. It is hard to imagine that if I was born in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, the probability of me being killed just because of my heritage or ethnicity was very likely. What is even scarier is the news that Canada’s national archive acquired a rare book it believes could have served as a blueprint for a Nazi purge of Jews in the United States and Canada. The 137-page German-language book, Statistics, Media, and Organizations of Jewry in the United States and Canada, was compiled by researcher Heinz Kloss, who did field work in the U.S. in the late 1930s. This book was part of Adolf Hitler’s personal library. This book hints at what might have happened if the allies lost the war. Given the horrors that transpired in Europe, targets would also likely have included any racial minority, gays, and lesbians, Indigenous Peoples and others considered problematic in Nazi eyes. It is a sobering thought that half my family could have been wiped out and I would not be here today writing this article.
If you think genocide will never happen again on the scale of what happened in Europe, you are sadly mistaken. The book “A Problem from Hell” highlights the United State’s understanding of, response to, and inaction on genocides in the 20th century, from the Armenian genocide to the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo War and Rwanda.
It is hard to believe, even after the truth was known, prominent religious groups helped some Nazis involved in this horrendous crime escape to South America. A recent poll in Britain found that one in 20 adults in Britain do not believe the Holocaust took place. I also read an article that 62% of millennials did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Such widespread ignorance and even denial are shocking. Hate is alive and well in the United States. Just last May, Neo-Nazis held a swastika burning following a white supremacist rally only 18 miles from my house. The events in Charlottesville that left three dead highlights the problems that still exist in the United States.
“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing”-Simon Wieser.
Democratic values are not automatically sustained but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected. There are dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent to the oppression of others. That is why it is important to revisit this horrible part of history now and then.
I recommend the following books on this vital subject: Why? : Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps by Odd Nansen and Timothy J. Boyce, and A Problem from Hell by Samantha Powe