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Among Tragedies, Holocaust Stands Apart

Column by Michael J. Franklin

Contributing Editor

Wednesday is Yom HaShoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day. If the past couple of years can be any prediction, this column will run under the headline of "We must remember the Holocaust" and 15 to 20 students and a faculty member or two will attend the memorial service in the Chapel. It may seem strange that any students attend at all. None of us existed during the Second World War, and still fewer have relatives that lived through and survived the war and the Holocaust. So, why should we try to remember the suffering and destruction wrought in Europe decades ago?

Tens of millions of people died during the Second World War -- Poles, Germans, Russians, Americans and others, but it was only the Jews who were chosen for extermination. They did not die in indiscriminate bombing attacks or ship sinkings. The Germans and their allies pushed the Jews out of society, dehumanizing them, torturing them, and finally killing them, simply because they were Jewish. To allow the Holocaust to fade into the footnotes of history gives the Germans the final victory, sanitizing their actions by making the destruction of the Jews just a part of the war, having no significance by itself.

The statistics surrounding the Holocaust defy comprehension. How can I grasp six million? Six hundred times the student population of MIT doesn't help. If an Athena laser printer were printing the names of those who were killed, it would take nearly nine days running non-stop to do so. Three million out of 3.5 million Jews in Poland were murdered. The 170,000 Jews in Vienna before the Holocaust kept 90 synagogues flourishing. Afterwards, the 6,000 survivors had one synagogue. Czechoslovakia supported a Jewish population of 180,000 dating back to the 11th century. After the Holocaust, 5,000 Jews remained in that country, and today only one synagogue is in use in Prague -- the other four have been turned into museums housing the collections for Hitler's "Museum of the Extinct Race."

But these numbers are still too big to be of much use. Think of the Holocaust in view of your life today. You are at home with your family when the police pound on your door, announcing that you must move to a different section of town. Too few houses for the families? Just squeeze into fewer rooms in houses with other families! You can't come back to school -- not only have you been expelled, but you can't use public transportation and your car has been taken by a former neighbor after you moved out.

The days pass. You eat, but not much. One day, you and your family and your neighbors are taken to a nearby forest and told to dig trenches. Then you are told to strip, and the soldiers use their machine guns on the emaciated bodies of you and your friends. You fall into the trenches, maybe dead, maybe not. Nonetheless, you are covered with dirt and forgotten.

Instead of the forest, perhaps you are being "relocated." The few belongings your neighbors did not take must be packed into a small bag you bring with you to the train station in the morning. You stand and wait inside the terminal. No food, no water, no restrooms. If you fall, you die.

Finally, you board the train like so many sardines, with no room to move or air to breathe. During the days you travel, your only view is that of the heads of the people around you -- the windows have been boarded. Perhaps people have died from lack of food. Too bad you can't toss them out. Finally, you arrive at your new home. "Work makes you free," proclaims the sign above the entrance, and a fetid odor wafts in your direction.

If you were with your family, you are now separated. Later, you learn that your mother and sister were taken to be "deloused" but instead were gassed in the delousing shower, removed and reduced to a few piles of ashes. You learn this from a former neighbor, who by virtue of his size and strength was volunteered for the job of removing and cremating people like your mother. What happens to you? Who knows? Perhaps you die from lack of food. Or some disease (going to the "hospital" is just a faster way to die). Or maybe because some soldier decides you should die.

No, not everyone died. Some people did help Jews escape, and they are honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, by trees along "The Avenue of the Righteous." Several hundred trees, each with a marker indicating the name and country of someone who helped keep some Jews from death. Only several hundred trees representing countries with hundreds of millions of people. Why so few?

One of the survivors aided by such people is the father of a friend, and he told me his story last year. After the Germans invaded the Netherlands, restrictions were imposed on Jews. Parks, he mentioned, were closed to "dogs and Jews." Forced into hiding, he and his family stayed in a farmhouse, but moved into a hayloft as German inspections became more frequent. No heat, limited food and not enough room to stand, but the hayloft was home for two years, and sufficient protection from the Germans. This family was saved, but 75 percent of their Jewish countrymen -- about 135,000 men, women, and children -- were exterminated at Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swiss diplomat in Hungary, was instrumental in saving the lives of over 80,000 Jews with passports and safe houses. As a country, Denmark did more to help than any other. When the Germans invaded and ordered Jews to wear yellow stars, the entire population donned the yellows and helped the majority of the Jews to escape. But the vast majority of people in the countries allied with and overrun by Germany were either ardent supporters of the anti-Jewish policies, or accepting bystanders. Anti-Semitism was not new in these countries, and many were happy to see the departure of the undesirables in their society.

The Holocaust must be remembered as a unique event in history, where the Germans enthusiastically supported a maniac who caused the nearly complete destruction of Jewish life in Europe. Others died in the gas chambers, in the trenches, and in the work camps, but no group was singled out as were the Jews. The Germans enacted laws restricting the activities of Jews, circulated propaganda degrading them, and succeeded in so dehumanizing them in the eyes of the rest of the Germans that their elimination was cause for satisfaction.

But this was not some insignificant aberration in history. Centuries of German and Christian anti-Semitism provided the groundwork for Hitler and his allies, numbing the minds of non-Jews to the ever-increasing hostility toward Jews. Hitler did not spring from nowhere and vanish. Anti-Semitism existed well before Martin Luther's tirades in the early 1500s and continues into today as neo-Nazis reappear. The median age of Jews in Poland is in the late 60s, yet some Poles still blame "the Jews" for their economic problems. Old habits die hard.

The Holocaust cannot be condemned to a place in history between the fire-bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima. To do so diminishes that great evil, declaring that Hitler was no worse than Truman and that 6 million Jews died for the same reason as anyone else: there was a war. If you forget the Holocaust, or forget its separate identity, you hand the Germans the victory that was wrested from them, and they gain anonymity in the the list of countries fighting wars and killing people, unrecognized for their role in the murder of the Jews.

Remember the Holocaust for what it was: the death of 6 million Jews simply because they were Jewish. Remember that ordinary citizens of a so-called civilized society stood by and watched while their fellow citizens were degraded, dehumanized, and destroyed. The specifics of the Holocaust will not happen again, but discrimination against minority groups continues to cause the death of thousands, not in this country, but in countries such as Iraq and the ex-Soviet republics. Remember that decades ago it was the Jews, but tomorrow it could be you.