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Auschwitz Fifty Years Later

by Rabbi Marvin Hier
Dean and Founder, Simon Wiesenthal Center
A few years ago, a prominent Holocaust survivor here in Los Angeles, told me that he took exception to the recent trend of Holocaust remembrances where the centerpiece focuses on heroic individuals such as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg.

His point was not that they are undeserving of our eternal gratitude and honor, for they surely are. His fear, however, was that young people might come to accept the notion that the relatively few practitioners of righteous conduct were the dominant characters of the Holocaust.

In a few days, survivors and world leaders will gather at Auschwitz to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. Undoubtedly, for most of the participants who personally experienced the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich, this will be their last gathering.

Future anniversaries will now pass to the next generation.

What kind of memory will they inherit? Will it be a memory reduced to a sound byte? Or will they have a deeper understanding of the machinery that made possible the horrors of Auschwitz?

Will it include Hitler's early writings in Mein Kampf, explaining what would happen to the Jews if he took power? Will they remember his use of the legal system which invoked the Nuremberg laws, barring Jews from German society? Or the infamous Concordat, which the Vatican signed with Hitler's Third Reich in 1933, granting the Nazis prestige and making it acceptable for the world to later flock to Germany's doorstep for the 1936 Olympics?

And what about the 1938 Evian conference, where international delegates refused to open their doors to the desperate refugees? Or, as the Australian delegate put it, "...we don't have a racial problem and don't want to import one."

And the Wannsee Conference of 1942? Will the students from Sioux City, Mammoth Falls or even L. A. know that eleven different branches of the German government were represented at that meeting to finalize the plan to exterminate an entire people with poisonous gas, thereby endowing mankind with the diabolical legacy of Auschwitz and Majdanek?

Or will the next generation's view of the Holocaust be reduced to a brief discussion in a classroom about an important book or film, where, inevitably, the few heroes manage to rise above the evil around them and stand up for human dignity? If that is all our students come away with, then I'm afraid my friend's fear is quite justifiable.

For in the end, if the Shoah is limited to the courage of a Schindler or a Wallenberg, then we have arrived at the same point as the Holocaust revisionists. To the latter, there was no Auschwitz because decent German people wouldn't do such a thing! And for our students, there would be no real Auschwitz, because the righteous stepped in and prevented the Jews from getting there!

But unfortunately, most of the Jews destined for Auschwitz did get there ... and were murdered there!

The truth is, that in the larger landscape of the Holocaust, the Schindlers and the Wallenbergs, despite their great individual deeds were like speckles of dust, dwarfed by the monstrous figures of the Eichmanns and Heydrichs.

Indeed, for every Pastor Bernard Lichtenberg who died en route to Dachau, because he had the courage to pray for the Jews, there were dozens of other Prelates -- from Pope Pius XII down -- who at best, looked the other way, protected their own, were bystanders rather than activists and sometimes even assisted the Nazis in carrying out their Final Solution.

And what of the World War II diplomats? Will we cite the extraordinary Japanese Counsel in Kovno, Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who saved nearly 8,000 Jews, and forget those heartless, antisemitic diplomats in the State Department and Whitehall who worked overtime to prevent a single Jewish refugee from entering Britain or the U.S?

Close to five billion people now inhabit our planet. It can be said with certainty that only a small percentage will ever visit Auschwitz or Holocaust museums, if at all. More than likely, their exposure might be limited to a movie they watch in school or at home.

Given that reality, the great fear is that many of them will never be exposed to the Holocaust's central lesson - that a civilized society voluntarily turned themselves into an evil one; that lawyers and judges lied and cheated; that teachers distinguished between Aryan and non-Aryans, teaching their students that even G-d's "thou shalt not kill" did not apply to society's untermenschen, the so-called sub-cultures, a name Nazis used to describe Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other undesirables.

To forget all that in search of almost non-existent heroes, reduces the Holocaust to a segment of LA Law, where a brilliant team of prosecutors preside over a world where the villains are forgotten and only the heroes live on.

Nearly 2500 years ago, the evil Persian Prime Minister, Haman, plotted a genocide against the Jews of Persia. In the end, his plot was foiled by the courage and tenacity of Mordechai and Esther and the event recounted in the book of Esther.

What is interesting, is that one of the customs introduced to help preserve that memory was the use of a grogger. It was to be sounded everytime Haman's name was mentioned during the annual public reading of the book of Esther in the synagogue.

The point was to remind Jews that the significance of Purim is more than just a salute to heroes. It must also be a time to remind the world that evil exists; that it is the roots of evil itself that must be uprooted, rather than placing our trust in finding more than a few who would act righteously under a dictatorship.

Of course, we should honor those who attempted to shed some light on those long black nights. But, we must insist that the apex of what we remember is that there was nothing heroic about the Holocaust; that there were far more villains than saints ... far more experts at closing doors than those brave enough to open them.

So, everytime we recall the defiance of the few, the courageous deeds of the small group of rescuers, we must be vigilant to never forget the silence of the many. To recall that there were thousands who betrayed their neighbors to the Gestapo, and the hundreds of train operators who went to work every morning with their box lunches and then proceeded to take their unsuspecting victims in sealed cattle cars to the death camps, never questioning their mission or having second thoughts about herding off generations of men, women and children to hell.

Only the full memory does justice to the victims of the Holocaust and may be strong enough to protect our grandchildren from another Final Solution !

Excerpts from this article were originally published in The Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1995.


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