Last Friday I had the privilege of briefly meeting a Holocaust survivor, hearing an extended recorded conversation with another Holocaust survivor, and hearing an hour-long talk from a German Jew who fled to the US shortly before war broke out.
It was, of course, sobering. And terrifying, when we consider where we are right now.
Eva Mozes and her twin Miriam were taken into Dr. Mengele’s experimental lab. Three thousand twins went in. Two hundred came out.
They were subjected to many different experiments. At one point Eva was supposed to die, injected with an unknown substance while her sister waited under observation for the comparative autopsies. But, “I spoiled the experiment. I didn’t die,” reports Eva. She survived and ultimately opened the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Educational Center.
I don’t need to spend time reviewing the atrocities of the Nazi regime. We all know Nazis are bad, we’ve seen it in all the movies and comic books.
But I actually think that’s part of our danger now. We’ve made the Nazis a caricature of themselves, a cartoonish byword instead of real people. We forget they were real people, who often thought they were not only justified but were doing the right thing for the largest number of people. We think real people could not possibly have gone there, could not possibly go there again.
But let’s look at what really happened:
- Only 33% of the German voting citizens voted the Nazi party into power. It didn’t take an evil majority; it just took some people who thought it was a good idea, others who went along, and a lot who didn’t bother to vote otherwise.
- Most of the pre-war Germans weren’t vocally anti-Semite. Walter Sommers, a German Jew who came to the US in 1939 and today is a docent at the museum, said his non-Jewish schoolmates, neighbors, teachers, and coworkers were very friendly with him. They didn’t support the Nazi platform at first, they just didn’t vote against it.
- Many of the pre-war Germans didn’t like what was happening. On November 9, 1938, Walter was walking home with a friend who was in the Hitler Youth — everyone was — when they observed the beginning of what is now known as Krystallnacht, an SS-organized attack on Jewish businesses, synagogues, and homes which killed hundreds, sent thousands to concentration camps, and destroyed countless businesses and synagogues. They saw German firefighters trying to save a burning synagogue and being restrained by SS, and German police ordered not to interfere in the physical attacks upon Jews. Walter’s Hitler Youth friend was upset along with Walter.
- Denial was powerful and widespread. Walter Sommers said most people, Jew and non-Jew, kept responding to the new anti-Semite laws with, “It’ll blow over.”
- Then the Nazi party gained enough strength to crack down on dissenters, sending protesting pastors and political activists to the new camps. And suddenly it wasn’t safe to disagree or protest any more. The chance to be heard, to stop what was happening, was gone.
That in itself is enough to make us stop and think about what happens when we say, “Aw, it’s a hot topic right now, but it’ll pass. It’s not affecting me.”
The Scariest Thing in the Room
But the most chilling exhibit in the building for me was not the first-hand descriptions of the ghetto or the camp, or the lab experiments, or how a mother pushed her son into a labor group to save his life just before her group was death-marched into the woods and massacred. No, the most chilling exhibit for me was a collection of personal letters home from Dr. Josef Mengele.
They’re sweet letters from a man to his family, eager to see them, asking after friends and neighbors, trying to work out how his wife can visit him during the war. They’re letters which, if you did not identify the sender, would be displayed anywhere as an example of the hardships of war and a man’s love for his family back home.
They are a blood-curdling reminder that even Dr. Mengele, even Goebbels and Hitler, were actual human people. That real people could deceive themselves into heinous acts the world still shrinks from addressing.
“That could never happen again,” I’ve been told time and time again. I’ve even heard it used as a justification for civil rights infringement or government registrations — “Yeah, it could be used wrongly, but we don’t have to worry about that now that we know, because that could never happen again.”
Whyever not? We’ve convinced ourselves of our own moral superiority — we would never fall for that — and rely upon that perception to prevent tragedy, rather than applying the moral objectivity which might be more useful than disdain for the fools of the past.
This is why free speech is important to me, even if — especially if — I disagree with what is being said. (It’s easy to allow free speech which echos one’s own sentiments; the test of your patriotism is allowing someone to say something different.) This is why fighting racism, sexism, and religious discrimination is important. This is why the first six amendments (in the US) particularly matter, because those are the rights which disappear first under dangerous regimes. This is why we should never say “that could not happen again” and instead say “that will not happen again, not on my watch.”
Comic book movies are not always the best place to learn history, but Captain America: The First Avenger has one point down solid:
Most people forget the first country the Nazis invaded was their own.
–Dr. Abraham Erskine
Germany wasn’t looking for a Holocaust. The Nazis did that by taking advantage of distraction, discontent, division, and apathy.
You’ve heard before that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. I want to remind you that doing something does not have to mean calling people names on the street or online. (In fact, I think it’s more often counterproductive, forcing people to shout their line harder and making it impossible for them to consider what you’re saying. Don’t make it hard for people to join your side.) Doing something means contacting your elected officials, showing up for discussions and voting, making an effort to reach out to disenfranchised minorities, praying.