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After 50 Years, Holocaust Still Matters

Column by Michael J. Franklin
Contributing Editor

I had considered not writing a column on the Holocaust this year. It is a morbid topic and the events and statistics of 50 years ago are difficult to make meaningful today. Moreover, it seems that beyond a few students, no one at MIT really cares.

"Why should I write a column this year?" I asked a friend a few days ago. "It seems that no one cares."

"I care," he responded. "Not all of my family made it out of Europe." He went on to explain that people are becoming insensitive to the horrors of mass destruction. Frequent news of deaths in Iraq or Kuwait, or of killings and rapes in the former Yugoslavia, numbs the mind to any individual act and blurs the distinctions between atrocities in the past and those in the present.

The actions of the Germans were the culmination of centuries of Christian and German anti-Semitism. The propaganda produced by the Nazis was accepted by the populace partly because it was what they were familiar with: the Jews diluted the German nation, caused the German defeat during the First World War and sought to rule the world. To purge the nation of tainted blood, to make Germany as strong as it once was, Hitler was determined to resolve the "Jewish Question."

Slowly but inexorably the Jews were deprived of their rights and their property both in Germany and the conquered nations. Jewish children were denied access to public schools, parks were closed to Jews, they were prohibited from using public transportation and owning private businesses. But Hitler's "Final Solution" called for further action -- not just to separate the Jews, but to eliminate them entirely.

As regular German troops invaded and conquered territories, special forces called Einsatzgruppen followed to purge the area of Jews. Town by town, village by village, person by person, Jews would be gathered, stripped of their possessions and machined-gunned into a pit. Slow but methodical, this process killed nearly 2 million Jews before a single concentration camp was open.

In cities with large Jewish populations, ghettos were constructed and filled to overflowing as Germans herded more and more people into the area. Relief came only through death by starvation or disease, or by "resettlement" into forced labor camps further east. Few initially knew the real reason for these camps -- the German command seldom issued explicit orders, and the stories told by the few escapees were not easily believed. Eventually other governments learned of the massive killings, but chose to take no action.

There was little hope for those that could escape. Few countries were willing to accept large numbers of grimy refugees, and fewer still were willing to accept Jews. Boats of refugees were turned away and Allied bombers which could have destroyed the death camps did not. Pleas for help went unheeded as the Allies focused on killing, rather than saving lives. Even as the war rumbled to a close, the Germans diverted important war resources to the process of killing Jews.

Why does it matter that millions of Jews died far across the Atlantic, 50 years ago? It is certainly of great concern for the survivors and their culture, diminished by the loss of so many lives. And for those of us in the present, who did not lose relatives or suffer from Nazi terror, the tragedy serves as an example of a nation enflamed with age-old prejudice which acts on that prejudice, and of a global society that watches, but does not act to save, the victims of that prejudice. The hope is that the world would learn from its mistakes, and intervene when necessary to save lives.

A year ago, I could have written that last paragraph with some enthusiasm and a vague hope that I would never see a situation fitting that description. But as the war in Bosnia increases in ferocity, I see that the society in which we live cares no more about the victims of deadly prejudice now than it did 50 years ago. As the western governments ignored and suppressed information about the death of Jews in Europe, so now are western governments ignoring the evidence of "detention centers" and "ethnic cleansing" in Yugoslavia.

By no means could I write that what is happening in the former Yugoslavia is even a shadow of the Holocaust against the European Jews. They are separate and distinct and the lives that are destroyed are those of individuals in differing circumstances that cannot be statistically compared. To simply fold them together under a heading of "atrocity, western" mindlessly compares the virulent Nazi ideology with that of a regional conflict. This comparison denies each tragedy's uniqueness and diminishes if not obliterates the importance of anti-Semitism in the former. They are not the same.

While most of us in these violent times are content to glance at the paper, or even to write a column, it seems that some people care enough to act. An article in The New York Times several months ago reported that one relief effort in the Balkans had met with success. This effort, supported by a number of Jewish organizations, had managed to get Jews out of besieged cities without the loss of life.

While other organizations and countries posture and proclaim, while cease-fires are signed and broken, while men are killed and women are raped, one group is saving lives. So successful was this effort, reported the Times, that "becoming Jewish" had entered the local slang as a synonym for escaping. People who had never considered themselves Jewish searched for proof of a Jewish grandparent to allow them to escape -- an ironic contrast to half a century earlier, when such proof meant death.

This year, Yom HaShoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day -- falls on Sunday. The events at MIT will be held on Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In Lobby 7 and other sites across the country, people will read the names of some of the victims of the Nazis. Some may be relatives -- distant or close -- while most will be ordinary people, all killed simply because they were Jewish. The day will pass and life for us will go on, but on that day, remember the millions who died, the very few who tried to save them, and for a change, take more action than simply reading the headlines.