Most of us, when we think about the Holocaust, probably think of ghettos, transport trains, concentration and extermination camps, gas chambers, crematoria, violent evil Gestapo agents, and monstrously inhuman prison guards.
In her book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life In Nazi Germany, Marion A. Kaplan demonstrates that the sacrifice of European Jewry began long before the first Jew was locked away behind barbed wire. Kaplan chronicles the daily routine grinding inhumanities that began in 1933 as soon as Hitler came to power in Germany and continued until the War finally brought an end to Nazi brutality.
The Nazi skill and creativity in devising new means of dehumanizing and doing violence to the Jewish people starting in 1933 was almost boundless. It is hard to imagine how so much energy could be poured into drafting the masses of laws and regulations that poured out of the Hitler regime. It is unimaginable to think of the resources required on the part of the local police and the Gestapo to enforce these rules that touched every aspect of Jewish life.
Who a Jew could marry was regulated. Where they could shop and what they could buy was controlled. They were told how and where they could educate their children. What they could do with their own money, what associations they were able to participate in, where they could live, travel, and work were all increasingly regulated by the rules that poured out of the insane Nazi bureaucracy.
Behind every Nazi decision and action, lay the apparent determination to deprive Jewish people of any dignity, power of self-determination, or ability to conduct their lives in a normal peaceful humane manner. The extraordinary violence against Jewish people infiltrated every aspect of their lives, depriving them of the most basic freedoms.
Among the brutal stories Kaplan tells of ordinary routine everyday violence against good German citizens simply because they were Jewish, the story of the Ahawah Day Care Centre in Berlin is one of the most chilling. In the early 1940’s Jews were enlisted to work long hours at hard labour. Women whose husbands were dead, missing, or interned in a concentration camp were forced to place their, often young children in daycare in order to be able to fulfill their work demands. Kaplan says that these mothers
brought their children to the center around 5 AM…Late in the evening, dead tired, the mothers picked up the tots and went home. The routine continued until February 1943. Then the Nazis deported the children and their caretakers without warning. When the mothers arrived, they found empty strollers and cribs. Neighbors watched the mothers’ mounting horror as they realized that their children had been taken from then: ‘The mothers stood there for hours crying.’
This is an important picture to ponder because it is a picture we can imagine. We struggle to imagine gas chambers and crematoria. But we can imagine showing up at a place we had left our child believing they were safe and discovering they are gone. We can feel the sense of loss. We can experience the crushing anguish of knowing that someone has taken our innocent children intending only to destroy their beautiful young lives.
We need to feel these feelings so that we will make different choices. We need to let this terrible scene penetrate our being so that we will be pulled back from the brink every time we are tempted to look at another human being as if they were not fully human. We need to feel the wrenching pain of the Jewish mothers of Berlin so that we will always do all we can to protect the humanity of every person.
We need to be willing to enter into the anguish of these Berlin mothers’ loss so that we will never forget that the choices we make do matter. It matters how we treat one another. We cannot answer the excruciating questions of the Holocaust. We cannot heal every injustice in the world or ensure that there is never again violence in the world. But we can choose to treat one another with respect and gentleness. We can resist the temptation to dehumanize another person. We have the ability to live with openness and compassion. These things lie within our power.
The violence that culminated in the Holocaust started in the minds and hearts of people unwilling to accept the humanity of another human being. Having dehumanized an entire group of people, the perpetrators of violence against the Jews refused to enter into the painful circumstances of daily Jewish life. They refused to hear the cries of mothers whose arms ached to hold the children they would never see again.
When we refuse to live with deep respect for all people, we will inevitably end up communicating to someone the horrible lie that somehow, “You are not human.” The next steps are violence, injustice, and destruction.
The mothers of the children in the Ahawah Day Care Centre in Berlin call out to us to hold every human life with reverence, respect, and gentleness. Anything less perpetuates the violence that has plagued human history and diminishes us to the condition in which we are able to look away when faced with the reality of another person’s pain.