It is terribly easy for one group to strike another group off the roster of humanity, to see others as vermin or pests, as an affliction that must be destroyed. It happens again and again. And once it does, people are capable of inflicting terrible hardship and pain on others and to feel they are righteous in doing so. None of the SS officers who ordered me – a starving teenager – to carry heavy steel rails up a hillside thought of themselves as monsters. They were adhering to their beliefs and they were serving their country. We must be constantly vigilant for the descent that takes us from self-righteous beliefs, to the dehumanization of others and into the sphere of violence.
The consequences of bigotry aren't always violent, and bigotry doesn't always get organized (thankfully), but it's always harmful in some fashion. We know how these stories can end.
It's a fashionable conceit in some circles that expressing bigotry, being "politically incorrect," is a badge of honor and somehow bold and courageous. It is instead an act of intellectual, moral and personal cowardice, an attempt to assert power and preemptively – lazily – shallowly – dismiss other human beings outright. Embracing bigotry may not be a natural path, but it's an easy one, not a sign of toughness (and certainly not reflection).
Klein moves on from "the sphere of violence":
While we are capable of all of this, we can also rise to amazing heights in the service of others. For two weeks I had the good fortune to have a respite from hard labor while I was assigned to work with a civilian German engineer who was surveying the landscape where future roads would be built. He saw the terrible conditions I was living under and decided to help. Everyday he hid food for me from the SS kitchen where he ate lunch. Chicken, milk, rice and cheese left under a bench in the back corner of a barracks. He cared, he took a risk and he saved my life. He deserves to be remembered too.
No one should be judged because of his or her nationality, religion or race. We were sent to the camps because propaganda was believed, individuality was erased and hate was rampant. When asked if I am angry with Germans, I think of the German engineer and know that individuals must be judged by their own personal actions. If I can hold this as a guiding principle after what happened to my family and me, then you can, too.
Last week was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and King often spoke about meeting hate with love. That may be too high a moral bar for some of us (or most of us) to reach with any regularity, but Klein's piece essentially suggests tackling dehumanization and bigotry with humanizing stories and tales of connection. And while hyperbolic, inaccurate invocations of the Holocaust definitely aren't helpful (and that's the real point of "Godwin's law"), some more serious comparisons prove valid, and a commitment to basic human rights remains valuable.
You can find several videos of Gene Klein online, and in this one, he speaks movingly of the German engineer he credits with saving his life. The engineer saw Klein as a fellow human being, and acted to alleviate his suffering. That story continues to be worth remembering.