For the past four months I have been reading literature related to the terrible events that occurred throughout much of Europe between 1933 and 1945. It is difficult reading. But, the more I have read, the more I have become convinced how important it is that we look honestly at the terror perpetrated upon innocent victims in the Holocaust.
There are an endless number of dimensions to the tragedy of this period in the world’s history. It is a story that must be told and retold from every possible angle, especially as those who are most able to tell the stories of the Holocaust become fewer and fewer.
There are two dimensions of the Holocaust of Jews in the early twentieth century that emerge for me as having particular and universal significance.
We must never forget the Holocaust because:
1. The Holocaust is a graphic demonstration of the reality and the tragic potential of the unacknowledged shadow side of the human condition.
2. We are in no way free of the dangerous desire that lay at the root of the Holocaust to divide humanity into groups and categories.
It is often said “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana 1863-1952) But it is equally true that those who will not face the dark hidden dimension of the human psyche are doomed to act unconsciously from that unacknowledged shadow side of their being.
In his extraordinary essay, “An Enemy Hath Done This,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written
There are moments for all of us when the liberal, rational, humane categories we normally operate with suddenly collapses; sooner or later, we must all drive into the extermination camp and confront without illusion the most unbearable truth about what it is to be human, the truth that benevolence and rationality are not at the heart of people’s actions. (A Ray of Darkness, p. 75)
Nazism laid bare the most evil tendencies in human beings. One of the most chilling aspects of the horrific acts that emerged out of Hitler’s regime is that many of these atrocities were conducted by, facilitated by, or at least tolerated by ordinary citizens of sophisticated, “civilized,” highly developed, well-educated countries. It takes more than a few fringe fanatics to identify, arrest, incarcerate, torture, and exterminate six million Jews.
The attempted extermination of an entire ethnic group for no reason other than the hint of Jewish blood was not carried out by barbarian hordes living in squalid primitive conditions. Nazi genocide was conducted by people who at the end of the day went home to their nice homes to play with their children and listen to classical music. The European persecutors of Jews would not have seemed strange or heinous to us had we met them outside the death camps. We might well have felt comfortable in the company of these mass murderers had we met them in a social context apart from their professional lives.
Those who condemned the Jews of Europe to death were people like us. We must be honest about the beast that lurks not far beneath the surface in all our hearts. We ignore the dark side of our nature at our peril.
Jesus was not indulging in mere hyperbole when he taught,
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a; brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21,22)
Jesus understood that the thought and the word are the parent to the action.
We must face the Holocaust in order that we may know that every time we divide the human community into those we perceive to be good and those we perceive to be bad, we are starting down a dangerous road. We need to renounce all distinctions in the human community. We cannot afford the fatal luxury of separating people into those we approve and those we deem less worthy of respect, freedom and dignity.
The world knew, certainly since 1938, of the horrors being perpetrated against Jews in Europe. While there were acts of kindness and generosity towards Jews, the world for the most part, responded by tightening immigration quotas, making immigration into Palestine illegal, and turning a blind eye to the horror that no one could avoid seeing. The gaping scar of the world’s active persecution of Jews or passive apathy in the face of genocide serves as a permanent warning against complacency in the face of the diminishing of any group of people by any other.
As we live increasingly in close proximity to a widening diversity of people, we must allow the Holocaust to work on our hearts enabling them to open to embrace people who may view the world differently. The Holocaust challenges us to embrace people who do not look or speak as we do. There is no place any longer in our world for distinctions, divisions, and separation between people. We are one human community.
The Holocaust is a searing reminder of what can happen when we forget that all human beings are created absolutely equal in the sight of God. The Holocaust demands that we choose compassion, kindness, and abundant generosity towards all people.