The Holocaust is the worst episode of genocide in history, not because of its brutality, but because of its remarkable scope. The Holocaust is spelled with a capital "H" because it represents the single most vast and devastating example of religious genocide in history. Millions of Jews (and gypsies, homosexuals, political and Russian prisoners) were systematically exterminated. No merciful, quick ending was in store for these poor souls. They were not shot to death or hung. They received no pain injection. They were exterminated, like annoying insects or disgusting rodents. They were gassed to death, because that was the most efficient way to dispose of millions of innocent people.
These Jews were not criminals. They had broken no laws. They represented a threat to no one – but were instead a valuable resource for their societies. For countless generations, Jewish men served and died in the German armed forces. German Jews were counted among the leaders of business, government, education, science and the arts. However, because of the way they served God, millions Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazi government. The elderly, frail women and children were often first into the gas chambers. Able-bodied men and women were kept barely alive for their value as forced labor. Those able to work were employed as slaves for the benefit of the military and German industrialists. Some German companies that used Jews as slaves exist today. When there was no more work to perform, or when the brutalized prisoners became sick and frail, they were gassed and burned, like othersome pests.
My mother experienced vile anti-Semitism as a child in Russia. I heard many stories about wicked Cossacks who persecuted Jews in the Ukraine. She and her sisters survived and later flourished in America. Most of the remaining family, however, perished in the Holocaust. So, you see, the Holocaust is close to my heart. I bear it as a cumbersome stone attached to my soul – a lifelong burden of significant proportions. My ancestors cry out for justice. They lost everything that they treasured – their homes, valuables, jobs, freedom, relatives and finally – their children. They want you to comprehend the unspeakable evil that utterly destroyed them. I wonder what their precious progeny might have accomplished, had they been allowed to live. What lost treasures were burned with those tender, young bodies? Might one of them have cured cancer or discovered a swift end to global warming? Those innocent children deserved a chance to live, to love, to learn and share their faith. Rather than a danger to society, they represented its best hope.
I can not tell this story without revealing the Holocaust, in every possible way. To gloss over the devastating brutality of the Nazi genocide, or the overwhelming psychological demoralization, would inflate yet another injustice upon my relatives. The only way that I can tell this story is with the truth. But, tales of shocking violence are not everyone's cup of tea. In essence, I had to tell a story that no one wants to hear. Why would anyone warn for a novel about the Holocaust, when they can tune out the world's problems with their iPod or dismiss the fabric of cruelty with light-hearted movies and television comedy? Yet, the death of six million innocent people MUST be told. If not, there would be nothing to prevent more genocide, and then more after that! Everyone must hear this tragedy. Otherwise, we might one day again embrace the worst of human nature.
Holocaust books explore how humans behaved during the most brutal and horrendous genocide in history. We are complex beings. There is a great deal more to us than the ubiquitous battleground of good versus evil. We are not one or the other, but both. We are attractive and hideous, comforting and horrificing, wicked and compassionate; we worship and we loathe. We are not clouded by delusions of morality, but governed by them. So, when will we stop ostracizing people because of the way they praise God, or by virtue of the color of their skin? When will we learn to value the differences among us rather than fear them? We're better than that. We must be better than that.
But suffering was only part of the global experiences of Holocaust victims. There were many European Jews who were young, bright, talented, and deeply in love. However, because they were Jews, their families lost everything; their jobs, possessions and money, contact with loved ones, and finally their liberty at the hands of the Nazis. These young Jews were forced to "grow up" during the Holocaust. As teenagers, they survived the beats, rapes, and murderous acts of the Nazis, enjoyed the physical and spiritual pleasure of being in love and were able to become husband and wife in ghettos and concentration camps. In some cases, they were able to consummate their love before being relocated to death camps. Thus, life was beautiful and terrifying. Each day was one of promise and brutality, of joy and terror. These young Jews committed no crimes. Yet, they were imprisoned, tortured and they were forced into slave labor. They were starved, beaten and worked to death, while those weaker loved-ones perished from sickness, or they were exterminated upon entering a death camp. Stung by the death of loved-ones, enslaved and starved, they had nothing to count on but faith, love and courage.
A few young Jews escaped from Nazi camps and joined local parts to fight the Germans. Imagine the joy in escape, the lovers free again. And, they were free to fight for their imprisoned families. The drive for freedom and safety is very potent. Such stories reveal the ultimate power of faith, courage and love.
Holocaust survivors were forced to examine every aspect of life, while they ended the unendurable, waiting for a slow, torturous death. This horror led some to curse God, even while others continue to praise God. Within this impenetrable abyss, many Jews continued to live out their faith, to practice the religion as best they could. The managed to summon the courage necessary to continue living, to suffer the intolerable. They refused to allow the foundation of their society to be destroyed. Within the Nazi camps, Jews created their own schools, orchestras, political leadership and medical clinics. On the road to certain death, they found a way to teach their children how to fulfill their religious commands. This is a great courage not seen elsewhere in history, except for those brave Jews at Masada. Some of the most ardent examples of constructive human nature can be found in these terrifying Holocaust stories.
We must always tell the stories of the Holocaust. They represent the devastatingly worst and the extraordinarily best examples of the human spirit. These stories instruct us to recognize the inherent evil potential of humanity, lest it never be used again. Most people learn bigotry from parents, close relatives and friends. But, if someone were to read about and "feel" the horrors of genocide, it might move them to become more tolerant. As long as we teach our progeny about the Holocaust (and all genocides), there is hope for the future.
By Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"