Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

None Thought of Themselves as Monsters

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of several such memorial days worldwide. Last year, The Guardian ran a short, excellent piece by Holocaust survivor Gene Klein, who urged the importance of remembering what happened, especially as the number of survivors dwindles. It's worth reading in full, but when I revisited it, one paragraph particularly leapt out:

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Monday, April 25, 2011
Lessons of History
Last week (April 20) it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was also International Cannabis Day, in case you wanted to forget about the Holocaust. Truly an irony of comparison apt to today's World. The hard, violent, angry reality and the self induced fog of passive forgetfulness.

Change is not easy, and is sometimes violent. In fact, if we look at the major changes for good that have happened in our country, few were without violence. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the violence to fight for better working conditions in the early 20th century, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam protests, and on, and on. Violence is part of what started this great country, and part of what has kept this great country safe and free. So for all you "peace-nicks" out there that say violence solves nothing, History is not on your side.

This goes for the World at large, whose History is nothing, if not violent and full of death and atrocities. Progress for humanity has been slow and riddled with death and violence. Yes, it seems we do not learn from History, and we continue to keep killing ourselves. There is a common thread to why we have been killing each other for centuries. Religion, and our dispute over its deity, meaning, practices, and laws have been the cause of countless death and wars.

By sheer elimination of the opposition, wars have defined which path humanity would walk. Victors decide the fate of humans and how they will be ruled. This lesson is not lost on those who think their way is the correct way, and therefore should be the path for all, even if it has to be forced on all.

People are basically followers and want to be led. That is the opportunity for those with an ego, to step in and lead people down their path. The abuses of leaders through the centuries is infamous. If people can rise above the fear of confronting power, they will revolt. The most famous revolt (judged by its outcome) in History, is the American colonists revolt and declaration of independence against the king of England.

We still have not learned our lesson from History. Oh sure, the leaders are different, the thugs are different, the criminals are different; but the themes of violence, death, war, egotistical rulers, oppression, and religious differences continue to repeat themselves.

Is it more barbaric to cut a few thousand heads off with a sword, or nuke a few hundred thousand people in an instant. That debate is senseless. We are still killing each other by the millions. Is death less sad if it is done in the name of good, instead of evil.? No. But good must be victorious over evil if we are to improve the human condition.

Over the centuries, we have improved the human condition. Yet, given our current condition, I see no reason to praise the efforts of mankind. If you want to compare us to our distant, barbaric relatives, fine, but our duty is to today and the future.

It's easy to understand why people escape to the drug induced world of "be happy." I don't believe in utopia. I don't believe in political messiahs. I don't believe in a man who could lead millions, and still be an honest man. Even the 2nd coming of Christ predicts a thousand years of war and death. I don't believe the World will be saved from itself. I believe the World will end. Humanity will kill it one way or another.

What can we learn from God, if he has pre-ordained that we will die by his hand, in another, but Holy Holocaust?

Came across this written many years ago.