We must remember the Holocaust
Six million is a difficult number to comprehend, yet many people will try this Sunday, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Not to understand why it happened, or how, but rather to protect and preserve the memory of those who died and the circumstances of their deaths. It is easy in the United States to forget the devastation of the Second World War; this country was spared from the horrors of both bombing and Hitler's "answer" to the age-old "Jewish Question." And Europe has largely rebuilt -- the signs of war and death have mostly disappeared or have been hidden by rebuilding.
To partly understand the great loss inflicted by the Nazis, and to understand why this day is to be remembered, one must merely view the evidence present throughout Central Europe. It is clear that Hitler's vision of a Europe without Jews was nearly realized. In Hungary, the Germans were able to exterminate all Jews in the countryside, but were prevented from reaching Budapest by the efforts of the Hungarian government, and later by the arrival of the Russian army.
Along a street outside the center of the city there stands a monument to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat. Why honor a foreign diplomat with a simple monument of a statue and some rocks? Wallenberg was one of those very few individuals brave enough to risk personal danger to help Jews escape the horror of Hitler and the apathy of the citizens. Using the powers of his position, he was able to save the lives of over 80,000 Jews, before being captured and arrested by the Russians.
No such figure as Wallenberg existed in Austria. In Vienna, one synagogue exists to serve the needs of the Jewish community of roughly 6000. It stands along a street forbidden to cars, guarded by two Austrian police with machine guns. Three cameras watch the approaches to the synagogue and two heavy sliding doors protect the main entrance. [ir2.75i,1.3i]These measures are not required for day-to-day problems, but rather to protect against the occasional -- but expected -- flare-up of anti-Semitism or terrorism.
Now it is the Austrian government that provides protection to the Jewish community. But in March 1938 this government allowed the Germans to annex their country. In November, they actively aided the German SS and SA arresting Jews, and burnings over 5000 businesses and 93 synagogues. Over the next seven years, it helped in the destruction of the vast majority of the 200,000 Austrian Jews.
A quick tour of the Central Cemetery finds that the Christian section is fairly well kept, with grass trimmed and new flowers near many of the older, as well as the newer graves. Yet the Jewish section is overgrown with grass. Worn stones tilt crazily and the Hebrew text is worn into greater incomprehensibility. No, the graves were not desecrated, but simply untended by their families, families which had been slaughtered by the Nazis.
Czechoslovak Jews suffered as well in the "final solution." Before the War, 180,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia. Now, a mere 5000 are spread throughout the country. The community in Prague had begun in the 11th century, and grew large enough to support five synagogues. These buildings did survive the terror of the Nazis, yet all but one have been turned into museums run by the state, mute testimony to the fact that after 900 years, there are simply no more Jews in Prague beyond a few old men and women. Peter Davison, in the May issue of The Atlantic, comments on the lifelessness of the old Jewish quarter noting that "only in one building, where the heartbreaking drawings and writings of Jewish children from the concentration camp at Terez'in are displayed, does life linger on."
Surprisingly, part of the Berlin synagogue remains standing, despite the fire during Kristallnacht in November 1938 and subsequent bombings of Berlin by the Allies in 1943. But like many buildings in East Berlin, it remains pockmarked with bullet holes, unchanged in the 45 years since the end of the war. The towers remain toppled, and the building is swathed in green netting supported by a rusting scaffolding skeleton.
Kristallnacht is the German name for the pogrom that occurred on Nov. 10, 1938. The name mocks its victims, memorializing the broken windows of shops while ignoring the real destruction and terror of that evening. "During the [first] 24 hours of Germany's first organized pogrom since the Middle Ages," wrote Read and Fisher in Kristallnacht, "7500 stores, 29 warehouses, 171 houses were destroyed; 191 synagogues were razed by fire and a further 76 physically demolished; 11 Jewish community centers, cemetery chapels and similar buildings were torched . . . at least 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and thrown into concentration camps."
The list of atrocities goes on and on and on. Poland, home of the six major concentration camps -- Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka -- helped in the murder of an estimated 3.5 million Jews (and 1.5 million non-Jews). Of all the European countries overrun by or allied to Hitler, it was only Denmark that made a concerted effort and saved the vast majority of its Jewish population. And the Allies denied escape for most refugees by limiting immigration when the need was most desperate.
It must be remembered that the extermination of six million Jews was not a side-effect of the war but one of the primary goals of National Socialism, a well-planned effort by Hitler to obliterate every trace of Jews in Europe. No other people -- not the Slavs, the gypsies or any other -- were condemned to die; no other group was so consumed by the enthusiastic and vitriolic hatred of Hitler and the German population.
For Hitler, Jews were the most important enemy, the poisoner of the German people and the force behind all of Germany's economic problems. He stopped at nothing to achieve his goal of complete elimination of this enemy, even diverting trains -- essential for the war effort -- to carry hordes of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps.
The Holocaust must be remembered as a unique atrocity, distinct from any other. To compare the Holocaust with Hiroshima, for example, denies and hides the historic role of German and Christian anti-Semitism that lead to and helped implement Hitler's mad theories. Furthermore, such a comparison implies that Americans are no worse than the Nazis, and that Hitler was no worse than Truman.
Lucy Dawidowicz in The Holocaust and the Historians, writes that another implication is that "Nazi Germany committed no worse crimes than other states and was not unique among nations as a perpetrator of evil deeds . . . differences between [il2.75i,1.3i]democracy and totalitarianism become unimportant. No distinction is made . . . between murdering six million Jews and, for instance, bombing Dresden."
This is not to belittle the horrors of Hiroshima or any other atrocity, but instead to assert their distinct circumstances. Each has its own tales of death and survival, its heros and villains, the people who remember, and those who forget. Each is the result of situations and actions which cannot simply be lumped together in a statement on the evil of mankind. Each must stand alone as a monument to those who suffered and a sharp reminder to those who stood by passively.
While the Holocaust is unique in history, anti-Semitism continues to haunt society. Jews returning home after their liberation from the death camps often were met by their neighbors who had taken their houses, refused to return them, and in many places murdered these survivors of the Nazis. More recently, the opening of socialist societies in Central Europe has released pent-up nationalism and anti-Semitism. Jews hurry to leave Russia, not for any great desire to settle in Israel, but because they fear for their lives in their own country.
The Soviet government has done little to constrain Pamyat ("Memory"), a strongly nationalistic group spouting anti-Semitic slogans which blame Jews for the evils of the country and forever threaten violence. Intellectuals are again rallying to the cause, citing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a long-discredited fabrication about a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. And the growth of neo-Nazis in the Northwest, and the graffiti sprayed over Wellesley last November indicate that anti-Semitism is alive in the United States.
On Sunday, remember the Holocaust as the realization of longstanding anti-Semitism, a horror designed by one man -- and supported by a nation -- to completely annihilate the "mortal enemies," the Jews. Remember that so-called civilized societies stood by as their citizens were doomed to gas chambers. Remember that anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head across the world. Remember that only through eternal vigilance will such memories prevent a recurrence, or an even greater disaster. To forget accomplishes the goal of National Socialism. Remember.
Mike Franklin '88, a graduate of the Department of Political Science, is opinion editor of The Tech.