There are scholars who argue that any idea of “learning lessons” from the Holocaust is morally objectionable. They argue that to suggest that the Holocaust can be summed up in a tidy little moral message is to trivialize the unspeakable horror that the Holocaust embodies.

Dennis Prager does not agree. Prager, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host in Los Angeles. Prager believes it is possible to discern at least 10 “Lessons from the Holocaust”  which he has posted at

Whatever one thinks about drawing morals from the tragedy of Nazism, Prager’s suggestions are worth pondering.

Here (and in three later posts) are Prager’s “Lessons from the Holocaust” interspersed with a few of my reflections.

1. The Jews are the world’s canary in the mine.

When Jews are murdered, it is a warning to decent non-Jews that they are next. Because Western nations dismissed Nazi anti-Semitism as the Jews’ problem, 50 million non-Jews ended up dying. If the world dismisses Ahmadinejad’s Iran as primarily the Jewish state’s problem, non-Jews will suffer again. Jew-haters (or, if you will, haters of the Jewish state) begin with Jews but never end with them.

Whatever we may think about Prager’s politics, his point is certainly well taken. Violence always breeds more violence. Those who stand complacently by when violence overtakes their neigbhour, should not be surprised when they find themselves under attack. The only way to prevent violence is to look boldly at it wherever it emerges and do whatever is in one’s power to counter the violence one observes with the weapons of gentleness and truth.

We do well to take to heart the sobering words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

(nb: it is not known when exactly Niemöller wrote these words and there are a variety of versions in circulation. This version is the one publicized by the Martin-Niemöller-Foundation. Oddly/sadly/incomprehensibly… this version leaves out any reference to the Jews. The ommission may reflect Martin Niemöller’s widely acknowledged antisemitism that he seems to have only really overcome by the end of the war.)

There is a self-interested appeal in Niemöller‘s words that I do not find entirely satisfying as a motive for standing up for truth. However, the point is well taken that indifference breeds indifference; violence leads to violence. A more peaceful world will only begin with me being a more peaceful person.

2. People are not basically good.

At any time in history, the belief that people are basically good was irrational and naïve. To believe it after the Holocaust — and after the communist genocides in China, Korea, Cambodia and Ukraine; the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians; and the mass murders in Rwanda, Congo, Tibet and elsewhere — is beyond irrational and naïve. It is stupid and dangerous, and therefore inexcusable.

Prager’s list of horrors is a chilling and sobering reminder of the depravity to which human beings at times descend. Human beings are undoubtedly capable of the most excruciating viciousness.

But, are China, Korea, Cambodia et al, the only piece of evidence in the human drama? Is Nazism really the final word about the true nature of what it means to be human? What about the countless unnoticed uncelebrated acts of extraordinary kindness and selfless generosity that have been conducted from generation to generation?

Why would we only count the holocausts in our estimation of what it means to be human? Why not factor in the endless acts of self-sacrificing grace parents extend to their children, health care professionals to their patients, international aid workers to those who are destitute? If they were written down as exhaustively as the acts of terror, the unrecorded acts of kindness that have never been absent from the human story, could go a long way to offering a different vision of what it means to be truly human.

Is it not possible that when we extend generosity towards another, we are in fact acting more in tune with our true nature than when we steal, kill and destroy?


nb: When I began thinking about Prager’s “Lessons from the Holocaust”, the April 15 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon took place. I was sent a Facebook post by Patton Oswalt, of whom I had never heard. Oswalt’s response stands as a moving reply to Prager’s second point.

With apologies for the language, here is Oswalt’s response to the horrific and tragic Boston Marathon bombing:

Boston. Fucking horrible.I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong.
I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.But here’s what I DO know.
If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet.
You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me).
This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”