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Remember the Holocaust

For most people, yesterday was a day like any other -- problem sets to finish, or perhaps a thermo test to study for. On a few calendars, however, it could be found that yesterday was Yom haShoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day. Nearly 50 years after the end of the second world war, understanding the Holocaust is not easy for those of us who were not there.

My understanding of the Holocaust began in some nearly forgotten high school history class, sandwiched between the League of Nations and the United Nations, summarized as "Nazi concentration camps -- 6 million dead." And it ended, much like thermo, just after the next test.

My interest was limited because I had no links to the region, or to the people. I am not Jewish, and my ancestors, Roger Williams and Benedict Arnold supposedly among them, have lived on the East Coast for centuries. It was only during my last semester at MIT that I finally took a course on the Holocaust at Wellesley. The required reading consisted of more books than there were classes, and we studied more in one class than I had forgotten from high school.

Rapidly it emerged that the Holocaust was not some isolated event in German history, but the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism. In 1880, the Anti-Semites petition was circulated through Germany, beginning "[i]n all regions of Germany, the conviction has prevailed that the rank growth of the Jewish element bears within it the most serious dangers to our nationhood." And in Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote "it is the inexorable Jew who struggles for his domination over the nations. No nation can remove his hand from its throat except by the sword."

Hitler and the Nazis imposed first upon Jews a series of increasingly harsh measures designed to separate them from society and destroy them. Registration of Jews, confiscation of silver and other valuables, confiscation of radios, cars and bikes, elimination of Jews from the civil service and private businesses, denial of schooling for children, proscription from theaters and public areas, disallowing travel on trains and buses, curfews, consolidation of Jews into ghettos all seem unbelievable today. Yet with great efficiency, the German government duly passed laws enacting these regulations, and the bureaucracy and nation efficiently enforced them.

These regulations were but the first step of the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem." After the Germans had stripped the Jews of their possessions, they began to destroy them. Hitler's plan did not call for the reduction of the Jewish population, but rather the complete elimination of it. As regular German soldiers battled their way into Russia, groups of special soldiers, Einsatzgruppen, followed them to murder Jews. A group "would enter a village or city and order the prominent Jews to call together all Jews for the purposes of resettlement. They were requested to hand over their valuables. . . The men, women and children were led to a place of execution which in most cases was next to a more deeply excavated anti-tank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch." This somewhat slow method succeeded in killing nearly 2 million Jews before the concentration camps opened.

Chelmno, the first major camp near Lodz, Poland, began operations on Dec. 8, 1941. Belzec, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz followed to aid in the Entjudung -- "de-Jewification" -- of the occupied countries. Adolf Eichmann wrote that the plan was to "resettle" 40,000 French Jews, 10,000 from Belgium, and 40,000 from Holland to Auschwitz, averaging 1000 people per day. There they were stripped, herded into gas chambers and murdered. Then they were cremated, as the next group was being pushed into the chamber in a process that often continued around the clock. One worker at Auschwitz said that "the stench given off by the pyres contaminated the surrounding countryside. At night the red sky over Auschwitz could be seen for miles." In the end, over 2 million people had been murdered at Auschwitz in two years, most of whom were Jews.

How does one comprehend 6 million? MIT tuition? Donald Trump's daily expenses? The number boggles the mind. Consider more reasonable comparisons: 80 percent of greater New York City, three times the size of greater Boston, or 600 times the number of MIT students. This 6 million came from 9 million Jews in Europe: 90 percent of the Jews in Poland, the Baltics and Germany were eliminated. Seventy-five percent of the Jews in Slovakia, Greece, the Netherlands and Hungary were wiped out. The list goes on.

But what do these numbers mean? Books can convey some sense of the destruction, the razed villages, the tens of hundreds of thousands of lives snuffed out, but these statistics alone cannot provide a complete picture. During my travels in Europe, I have been able to see some of the results of the Holocaust even after 45 years.

In Prague, the old Jewish ghetto shows some signs of the community that once flourished. All but one of six or seven synagogues are museums, since there are too few people to pray in them. The one that is open for services, a friend told me, was "packed" on Friday night, with at least 30 people. So much for a pre-war Jewish population of nearly 80,000.

The museums in Prague are special places, for they contain the last remnants of many Czech and Slovak Jewish communities. This city was the central storage location for religious items stolen by the Nazis in preparation for a grand "Museum of the Extinct Race." Hundreds upon hundreds of candlesticks, Torah covers, silverware and books are displayed in these museums, and stored in over a dozen warehouses.

The synagogues of Vienna were not so fortunate as those in Prague. Now there is only one to serve the needs of the 7000 Jews in Vienna. It is guarded by three to five Austrian police with machine guns and watched by several cameras. Cars are not permitted on the street in front, and entry is accomplished only after questioning by more guards. The other 90 synagogues in Vienna were demolished during November 1938, during what is known as Kristallnacht, the night of glass. And the Jewish section of the Central Cemetery is overgrown with plants -- the relatives of the dead have either left, or more likely were killed during the war.

Jerusalem is home to Yad Vashem, a phrase from Isaiah meaning "everlasting memorial." The vast archives of war documents helped to convict the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. The Hall of Names carefully maintains the descriptions and histories of 3million Nazi victims. Many of the remaining 3million cannot be found, since the Nazis and their allies liquidated whole families and towns, leaving no one to remember the dead.

The Children's Memorial is simple -- just a dark room with hundreds of mirrors and a few candles. The flames, which appear to surround the visitor, represent the 1.5 million children who perished during the Nazi terror. Yad Vashem is nearly surrounded by The Avenue of the Righteous, a path shaded by trees planted in recognition of non-Jews who helped the Jews during the Holocaust. I have no doubt that not everyone who had helped has been recognized. Despite this, it is dismaying to see only a few hundred trees.

Seeing these cities helped to add substance to my image of the Holocaust, but like the books, it is indirect, and decades too late. At MIT, I have had the opportunity to speak with several Holocaust survivors, parents or other relatives of friends, and have begun to understand the situations of individuals within the broader scope of the Holocaust.

One of these survivors remembers the Nazi invasion into The Netherlands. Restrictions were imposed, each more severe than the last. Radios were confiscated (too many people were listening to the BBC), Jews were forbidden to travel on public transportation, parks were closed to "dogs and Jews." His father and brother slept away from the house to avoid periodic Nazi roundups for the forced-labor camps.

Eventually, he, his brother and his parents were forced to flee, and with the help of the underground, were housed in a farm. Initially, they lived in the farmhouse, but as Nazi inspections grew more frequent, they moved into the hayloft, where they stayed for more than two years. There was not quite enough room to stand up, no heat in winter and Germans everywhere, but these four people survived while at least 135,000 (75 percent) of their Jewish countrymen were sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor where they died.

What should be done now? Near the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, are six flames atop six-foot Hebrew letters spelling one word, "remember." Remember that 6 million is not just a number, but individuals whose lives were ended for no reason other than their religion. Remember that they did not die as simply as casualties of war, but through the actions of a methodical madman, supported by supposedly civilized countries. Forgetting diminishes the awful importance of the Holocaust allowing the Nazis to reap a posthumous victory. Only through eternal vigilance will such memories prevent a greater disaster against the Jews, or any other group. Remember.


Mike Franklin '88, a graduate of the Department of Political Science, is contributing editor of The Tech.