LESSONS OF HOLOCAUST STILL NOT LEARNED 1

Marc Rogers 2

 

The defining event of the 20th century, the liberation of the Auschwitz death and concentration camp, where the mechanization of mass murder and genocide was fine-tuned and implemented to exterminate 1.5 million Jewish men, women and children, has recently been the object of much media coverage, the subject of many secular and religious homilies and the dominating theme of piety-laden speeches by the governmental representatives from Germany, France, Poland, Russia and the United States. This chorus of hosannas, highlighted, as always, by the clarion call of "never again," left me feeling, however, lifeless and spiritless, as the pronouncements were delivered in an obligatory and mechanized fashion, devoid of the tumultuous and eviscerating underpinnings that have seared, and will forever scar, the soul of humanity.

The subject of genocide, the deliberate, systematic and planned extermination of a national, political, racial, cultural or religious group, was defined and refined, honed and perfected, in the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.

How did this happen? Who were the major protagonists and their willing, if not acquiescing, helpers? Why did some people join the resistance movements against Nazi hegemony and others imbibe at the trough of Nazi philosophy, even going so far as to aid and abet, both figuratively and literally, the Nazis in the implementation of the Final Solution (the annihilation of the Jews of Europe)?

The list of contributing (primary and ancillary) factors and actors to the Final Solution is much broader and revealing than is commonly acknowledged in the halls of governments, in the textbooks of schools and universities and in the archives of religious institutions. Thus, the Vatican's signing of a treaty with Germany (the Concordat) in 1933 and with Italy (the Lateran Treaty of 1929), gave Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini a free hand in implementing their agendas, as the Roman Catholic Church, in both countries, in exchange for its silence on Nazi and Fascist policies, was rewarded by subsequent government subsidies, tithes and tax abatements to, and for, its treasury.

The invading Nazi armies also counted on, and received, a considerable amount of assistance from native militias whose anti-Semitic leanings were well-known and countenanced in their country of origin -- the Iron Guard in Romania, the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Ustashi in Croatia, the Vichy in France and the Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians of Russia and the Baltic states. These militias and native sons were, in many ways, indispensable to the Nazi effort to exterminate European Jewry, performing their role with a zeal that in many cases exceeded the dictates and brutality of the Nazi high command.

Even the United States was not immune from the virus of anti-Semitism, as the demagogic tirades of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Gerald K.L. Smith and Father Charles Coughlin filled the airwaves and dominated the local press, spewing forth their hatred and venom of the Jewish people and repeating theological and racist lies straight out of Hitler's playbook.

And the state that was most influential (albeit in a circumspect and unintentional manner) in the Nazi advocacy and embrace of negative eugenics (which was the first step on the road to the gas chambers) was California, which in the 1920s and 1930s was the U.S. pacesetter in the sterilization of people afflicted with mental retardation and other physical and psychological handicaps.

This short and piquant summary of the long arms and wingspan of genocide illustrates just how far the history of the Final Solution, in speeches, memorials and classroom textbooks, has been sanitized and polished for public comfort and consumption. The savagery and finality of genocide have thus become, in the minds of many of today's students, just another reality show, a show that downplays the complex and interwoven factors of life and death and substitutes superficiality and frivolity for depth and introspection.

The aging of the Auschwitz survivors and their compatriotic brethren leaves us little time to rectify these glaring and purposeful gaps in the historical textbooks that are read, debated and used by students, scholars and the public as the definite and accurate rendering of the Holocaust and its genocidal extermination.

As such, it is imperative that the following recommendations become part and parcel of the public discourse in the halls of government, the homes of private citizens and in the classrooms of academia:

       The true and intricately woven record of the Holocaust must be made public and manifest. That means that all the governments that were participants in World War II, including the Vatican, must release any and all of their records as pertains to their (peripheral or central) role in the gestation and maintenance of the Final Solution.

       The proliferation of genocides since the Holocaust, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan, Tibet, Syria and Iraq, indicate that the lessons of Auschwitz have not been assimilated nor incorporated. The signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have to have their feet held to the fire of revelation and to quote the current vernacular "talk the talk but especially, walk the walk."

       The key element of those citizens and governments that risked their lives and treasure to hide and rescue Jews from the Nazi maw of death is the much-ballyhooed but little practiced process of empathy -- the identification with, and experiencing of, the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another. If empathy is taught and experienced at every step of the educational K-12 ladder, supplemented and augmented through all academic disciplines, then the wish of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, will come to fruition: "The treaty of genocide and its implementation is like a ship carrying survivors -- it cannot be permitted to sink."

 

Footnotes:

1.  Ventura County Star, February 6, 2005 [ http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/pulse_speak_out/article/0,1375,VCS_126_3527422,00.html ]

2.  Marc Rogers, Ph.D., lives in Thousand Oaks, California

 



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