I began with that factoid because … well … it is disturbing.
I uncovered this factoid because I actually just finished reading two different disturbing perspectives <books> about World War 2 and the holocaust and the aftermath. One is a disturbingly authentic book about Simon Wiesenthal and the second is a truly disturbing read, a novel, called The Kindly Ones.
The first book was Wiesenthal’s autobiography “The Murderers Among Us” written in 1964.
In case you don’t know who Wiesenthal was … he dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice after World War 2. He relentlessly pursued leads and searched for the first-hand accounts which would stand up to scrutiny in a trial situation <by the way … that trial scrutiny was actually more difficult than you may have imagined>.
I think it is important that more of us pick up this book … or visit a Holocaust museum or do something tangible to remember the Holocaust.
With the number of concentration camp survivors dropping to about 200,000 from 400,000 a decade ago … we should be thinking about how best to remember the Holocaust … well … how to actually remember what happened.
We are at a transition point in memory. We are quickly moving from lived memory to historical memory.
<reminder: and we people, in general, have a short memory>
I say that and, yet, while I read the Wiesenthal book I found it saddening to see how quickly many on both sides wanted to see these events covered up and forgotten and how many of the major perpetrators lived out their lives in secrecy and comfort.
I imagine there are 2 sides to every story … and that is why I included The Kindly Ones here also. It is most disturbing in that, while a novel, it is written from a non-apologetic point of view of an active Nazi Holocaust participant.
It is an attempt at expressing a “what I did wasn’t so wrong if you looked at it through my eyes perspective.” Well. The novel is so well written you often find yourself sucked into the warped justification of behavior thinking.
It is disturbing.
It is very well written … but painful <as ‘pit in your stomach aching type’ pain> as you read it.
Just be very very careful when reading it … it is surprisingly easy to begin sliding down the slippery moral slope.
As for that moral slope? Remember … none of us can truly know what we would do in this situation … but only hope we would do the right thing <no matter how hard it would be>. If it helps … later on in this post I highlight a man named Anton Schmid who faced that quandary.
Here is the one side which everyone needs to read first.
Murderers Among Us … a firsthand view of the Holocaust from Simon Wiesenthal.
And while it certainly takes on the perspective of the Jewish he also maintains a wider view.
Why is it important to take on a wider view?
Some scholars maintain that the definition of the Holocaust should also include the other victims persecuted and killed by the Nazis.
Estimates of the death toll of non-Jewish victims vary by millions, partly because the boundary between death by persecution and death by starvation and other means in a context of total war is unclear. Donald Niewyk maintains that the Holocaust can be defined in four ways:
- first, that it was the genocide of the Jews alone;
- second, that there were several parallel Holocausts, one for each of the several groups;
- third, the Holocaust would include Roma and the handicapped along with the Jews;
- fourth, it would include all racially motivated German crimes, such as the murder of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, as well as political prisoners, religious dissenters, and homosexuals.
Using this definition, the total number of Holocaust victims is between 11 million and 17 million people.
According to the College of Education of the University of South Florida approximately 11 million people were killed because of Nazi genocidal policy.
R. J. Rummel estimated the death toll due to Nazi Democide at 20.9 million persons.
Timothy Snyder put the victims of the Nazis killed only as result of deliberate policies of mass murder such as executions, deliberate famine and in death camps at 10.4 million persons including 5.4 million Jews.
The German scholar Hellmuth Auerbach puts the death toll in the Hitler era at 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust and 7 million other victims of the Nazis.
Dieter Pohl puts the total number of victims of the Nazi era at between 12 and 14 million persons, including 5.6–5.7 million Jews.
Whew. I included all of those numbers because it is mind numbing to think we are not sure by millions in our estimates … as well as the fact we are discussion double digit ideologically driven millions of deaths.
The Holocaust was the greatest human tragedy of the 20th century.
One and a half million Jewish children perished in the Holocaust. Tens of thousands of other children were also murdered. They included people with disabilities… as well as Roma and Sinti.
All were victims of an ideology that justified this behavior by labeling some people as “inferior.”
The Holocaust centered around one incredibly disturbing thought: Vernichtung lebensunwerten lebens <destruction of lives not worthy of living>.
“Lives not worthy of living.”
I struggle to believe anyone could embrace that thought … yet many did.
Wiesenthal views the entire situation through a discussion with an everyday SS soldier in the midst of this horror:
“I’m an SS man but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I don’t know whether it is a dream or the truth. You would tell the truth to the people I America. And you know what would happen , Wiesenthal? They wouldn’t believe you. They’d say you were crazy. Might even put you in a madhouse. How can anyone believe this terrible business … unless he has lived through it?”
Wiesenthal experienced this and yet he also faced what was probably even more difficult for him to accept … the non-believers.
And please remember … he wrote this book in 1964 … within 2 decades … even within years … there were non-believers.
People would say to him after the war:
There is no evidence that Anne frank lived. The diary may be a clever forgery. Certainly it doesn’t prove that Anne frank existed.
He states in the book that he realized one of his challenges was he would have to provide proof.
As he said:
One would have to produce proof – irrefutable proof that would convince these young skeptics. One would have to tear one single brick out of the edifice of lies that had been constructed, than the whole structure would collapse.
Even her father reporting they had been arrested by gestapo wasn’t proof.
It would seem that in the aftermath of the war that the last thing we would need to do was to provide proof.
Why would we need proof?
Wiesenthal suggested that the historical chance for moral retribution was missed.
The survivors were too weak and too apathetic for any concerted action. Hardly able to walk some were more dead than alive when liberated. Later on when we were physically stronger everybody wanted to get away from the horror of the past as quickly as possible. Life was cruel but life had to go on. And so the job of retribution was mostly left to those who never suffered in a concentration camp. And most of these didn’t care about moral restitution they were interested in material restitution. They talked about money not bringing to justice the men responsible for the apocalypse. Our critics have a point. It’s too late now. Many murderers will remain among us.
Beyond seeking justice to those who enacted the Holocaust … Wiesenthal also wanders through the discussion of ‘those who stood by and did nothing.’
It may seem difficult to imagine looking back at this horror … but while many people condemned the atrocities within Nazi Germany … most dared to do nothing.
It is a harsh reminder that doing the right thing can be dangerous.
And I imagine <while this may sound trite> it comes down to how you want to live … or die.
Wiesenthal discusses one who made this choice … Anton Schmid.
“Here rests a man who thought it more important to help his fellow man than to live”
<on Schmid’s gravestone>
I am including what Wiesenthal wrote about Schmid because this was one of those moments when you are reading a book that you have to stop … take a breath … reread it … then take another breath:
Frau Schmid showed me an earlier letter from her husband, dated April 1 1942. At that time, he was already under investigation by the Gestapo. “Everybody must die some day,” he wrote. “One can die as an executioner or as a helper. I want to die as a helper.”
Wiesenthal then writes about who he thought Schmid may have represented:
An old Jewish legend, often cited in Hassidic teachings, has it that there are 36 righteous men on earth, unknown to others, and themselves unaware of their mission.
The legend goes back to Isaiah 56, where it says, ‘Glory to those who trust Him.’ ‘Him’ in Hebrew is written ‘LO’, and these two letters, according to the Hebrew system of numeration, in which certain letters also stand for certain numbers, make up the number 36. Also, according to the Babylonian Talmud, ‘the world has not less than thirty-six pious men who receive daily the face of God’. The thirty-six righteous men, according to these teachings are mostly poor, simple, ordinary people – workers, farmers, water-bearers and so on – but ‘the world is supported by them’. They are ‘the vessels into which the suffering of the whole world flows … If even one of them were not here, the world would perish with suffering’. They never make themselves known to other people. They appear at times of dire need, during great catastrophes, perform their duty and die.
[Here ends Wiesenthal's testimony.]
Let me end with this thought.
Remembering the Holocaust matters.
It reminds us of certain things that should never be forgotten.
It reminds us that evil and unwarranted hatred are a reality that exists in our world.
It reminds us that some people have an infinite capacity for evil that, left unchecked, can destroy the world.
I do sometimes fear we are beginning to trivialize the Holocaust and the fact over 10 to 12 million people were systematically killed … not by war … but through a system.
It is becoming to easy to reduce Nazis to some symbolic thugs.
And reducing Nazis to thugs rather than ideological killers devalues the true extent of the abuse of power.
And reducing the ideology suggests that only the weak & moronic & ignorant could fall prey to such a direction.
And we shouldn’t do so.
We learned from the Holocaust that even a highly educated, cultured, and sophisticated society can fall under the sway of evil.
Germany was a leader in science, art, education, literature, philosophy, music … none of which stopped the cruelty and inhumanity that followed.
Remember this as a last thought.
The guards at Auschwitz listened to Bach while their victims were gassed to death.
In the end I imagine remembering the Holocaust should, at minimum, remind us of one thing:
Here rests a man who thought it more important to help his fellow man than to live.
<tombstone inscription on Anton Schmid’s grave>
We all have choices.
And forfeiting our own life for something we believe is right … well … is the greatest choice one can make.
Simon Wiesenthal reminds us that attaining justice is never easy and evil is relentlessly slippery.
The Holocaust reminds us that in that face of evil it may end up meaning helping your fellow man may be more important than living.
Some things should never be forgotten.