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We write the Holocaust with a capital “H” because it represents the single most devastating example of genocide in history. It was not “a” holocaust, but “THAT” holocaust, because millions of innocent people were exterminated for their faith in God. Millions of Jews were systematically exterminated on the orders of the German government. This is in addition to the murders of millions of other “undesirables” (gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners, criminals, etc.) The German government used these innocent people as scapegoats to distract the citizens of Europe from the military conquest that was already underway.
Consider only the plight of European Jews during the period called the Shoah (Holocaust), from 1933 to the end of World War II in 1945). The vast majority of these Jews did not receive a quick death. They were not hanged or shot. They did not receive an injection that would hasten their path to a painless death. They were exterminated as annoying insects. They were gassed to death because it was the most efficient way to get rid of six million men, women and children – who happened to be Jews.
Because of how they praised God; six million innocent people were murdered. Women, the elderly, the sick, the frail, and children were often the first to enter the gas chambers. Men and tough women were barely alive for their forced labor value. Those able to work were employed as slaves for the benefit of the army and German industrialists. Some of those German companies exist today, albeit under different names. Some still have the same name. When there was no more work, they too were murdered.
My mother experienced brutal anti-Semitism as a child in Russia. I have heard many stories about the brutal Cossacks who persecuted the Jews in the towns and villages of Ukraine. My mother and her sisters barely survived and then flourished in America. However, most of her remaining family perished during the Holocaust. Genocide is therefore close to me. I hold it forever like a heavy stone attached to my soul. It is a burden of remarkable proportions. My ancestors are calling for justice. They want you to know what happened to them and their children. However, I cannot tell this story without exposing the Holocaust in every possible way. It is a terrible and beautiful story, full of heroes and villains.
Why would anyone want to think about the Holocaust today, especially when they could listen to their iPod or tune out the harrowing world with movies, laptops and television? Yet the death of six million innocent people MUST be said. If not, nothing would prevent another genocide and then another! Everyone needs to hear this tragedy. Otherwise, our offspring might embrace the worst of human nature.
This does not diminish the importance of other holocausts. Those innocent people who were murdered in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur were equally blameless. When will society stop being afraid of those who are unlike themselves? When will we learn to appreciate the differences between us and not fear them? When will we stop ostracizing people because of their religion, race or ethnicity? When will governments and individuals stop using minorities as scapegoats? After all, it is the 21st century! We are better than that. We have to be better than that.
I appreciate books that offer an honest, emotional examination of morality. People are not good or bad, but good and bad. We surround ourselves with romance and comedy, playing on the healthier parts of our emotional identity. Yet resistance, despair, and darkness exist in human nature. We will learn nothing about ourselves unless we explore the dark side of our psyche.
I researched how people behaved during the most brutal and horrific genocide in history. I researched the Holocaust daily for three years. If the Shoah (holocaust) can be of any benefit, it is that we can examine and learn from the farthest extent of human depravity. We can measure his immorality, degeneracy and wickedness. Yet humans are complex beings. There is much more to our nature than the ever-present battlefield of virtue and vice. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both. We are beautiful and ugly, comforting and terrifying, brutal and caring, kind and unfair; we love and we despise.
Deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were extremely critical decisions about ethical behavior and our conception of morality. Unlike animals, humans are guided by principles, ethical beliefs, and the power of truth. We are not shrouded in delusions of integrity, but guided by them. Holocaust victims and survivors provide us with a human response to terror. Innocent people, like you and me, were reduced to disgusting objects, used for slave labor, and then exterminated. The German government used propaganda to teach all of Europe that Jews were “pests.” An entire generation of Germans was taught that Jews were dangerous and should be exterminated. Unfortunately, many Europeans bought into this propaganda all too eagerly. They gladly participated in the rounding up of Jewish families (Einsatzgruppen) and handed them over to the SS, who placed them in concentration camps. Almost none of the Jews survived, including women and children.
At the same time, despite their enslavement in ghettos and concentration camps, European Jews experienced the seductive beauty of passionate young love and the driving force of religious devotion. They were still human after all. Imprisonment in a concentration camp did not prevent the Jewish victims from experiencing a world of normal emotions. Instead, it added an awful lot of horror, horror and fear. Our lives are complex—even in the glaring trap of the Holocaust. Not all imprisoned Jews were innocent victims. Not all Germans were rabid anti-Semites, bent on destroying the Jewish “race”. Life was and is much more complicated.
In reality, the world is rarely seen in black and white, or even in shades of gray – especially during the Holocaust. In the midst of terrible, unspeakable suffering, there was beauty. Despair existed in beauty. And while many Jews in the abyss of the Holocaust worshiped God, some condemned God. While it might be easy to claim that God works in mysterious ways, how is one to focus on such a belief when the veneer of all that is good in life is stripped away? How can one continue to love a God who allows the murder of every innocent loved one, a deity who allows innocent people and children to be starved, beaten, tortured, denigrated, mutilated and emotionally destroyed? Could the Shoah be the ultimate test of faith?
Holocaust survivors lost everything, but they may have gained something. An honest examination of the Holocaust must surely reveal excruciating brutality and death. Most people who survived the Holocaust lost all their loved ones. The facade of life’s beauty has been stripped away to reveal an incomprehensible chasm of resistance. Yet here, in the bowels of horror, the Jews of the Holocaust hit a wall and continued to flee. Despite the onslaught of evil, in the face of certain death, these Jews invented a make-believe world for their children. Deep in the horrific concentration camps of Nazi Germany, European Jews continued to practice their religion, teach their children, and love one another. Here, among the gas chambers and crematoria, one can feel the hope for the survival of the human spirit. These rare individuals who preserved their Jewish identity in the Holocaust rose from the ashes of extermination like a fabulous phoenix.
Those poor souls trapped in the terror of the Holocaust faced the most treacherous forces. Fraud, brutality, cruelty, disease, hunger and the death of loved ones were the daily companions of the victims of the Shoah. Yet in the midst of utter despair there was life, love, passion, longing, religious fervor and excitement known only to children. Even in such a hopeless wasteland, there was love for God, infatuation, romance, passion and desire for all that people desire. The Jews invented their ethnicity to the rhythm of the slow and steady march to the gas chambers. They refused to allow the fabric of Jewish society to be torn apart by resettlement and the threat of extinction. They created schools, orchestras, athletic events, synagogue and prayer, weddings and funerals, dances and theater, study groups and debates; Jews were sent to every hellhole; they took their Jewish lifestyle and values with them. Instead of surrendering to the Nazis, Jews imprisoned in ghettos and concentration camps courageously maintained their culture. Religious holidays were observed as if it were just another ordinary year. Although forbidden to observe the rituals of Judaism, the victims of the Holocaust found a way to pray and perform the duties of a Jew. Some of the starkest examples of constructive human nature can be found in these horrifying moments of the Holocaust.
Jews hidden from the SS, ghetto, and concentration camps observed all required covenants and rituals, including prayers on the Sabbath and during major holidays, wedding ceremonies, funerals, and circumcisions. On the ominous, terrifying and inexorable journey to the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews lived, loved, learned and died, acting as if their lives continued without limitation. In their darkest moments, the Jews of the Shoah invented a “normal” life for their descendants. Despite their impending mortality, they created an ordinary world inside to protect their children from the genocide raging outside. Such was the nature of their love, faith and devotion. Indeed, this worship went beyond parental affection. Into the gas chambers and crematoria of Nazi-controlled Europe, the Jews of the Holocaust emptied their faith and love while continuing to worship the God of their ancestors.
The human spirit strives for autonomy and freedom. But to appreciate human nature, one must descend into the depths of depravity and horror. We cannot understand humanity without understanding its evil faults. Deep in the darkest corners of a brutal genocide, we discover a faint glimmer of light representing love, passion, desire, hope, worship and respect. Here is the essence of humanity – a glimmer of light representing morality, faith, love and justice, in the midst of a dark maelstrom of malice. But it is not enough that we understand the Holocaust. Our posterity must also understand this. Otherwise, it could happen again.
That is why we must always tell the stories of the Holocaust. Such stories represent the worst of human vilification and the insurmountable limits of our compassion. Holocaust stories teach us how to recognize the worst examples of humanity, but also the benefits of viable morality. The terror of genocide is not necessarily an inevitable human outcome. We must learn from the mistakes of our past rather than repeat them. As long as we teach our children about the Holocaust, there is hope that it will never happen again.
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