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Haunting Voices from the Holocaust

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Most of my formative years were spent in a working class, Jewish neighborhood in Detroit. I went to a grade school that was overwhelmingly Jewish. I was immersed in the Jewish culture and knew it as my own. I’m a richer and better person for those experiences.

I vividly recall many discussions of the Holocaust. I can still close my eyes and see the number tattooed on the arm of Beverly Hearn’s mother that bore witness to her experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. I was aghast to see the pictures of the starving prisoners on their liberation day and of the trenches filled with the emaciated corpses that didn’t live to see the end of the war. We were told to never forget the horrors that had been perpetrated just a few years earlier. “It must be remembered so that it never happens again” we were instructed.

There was a very active group of Nazi war criminal hunters as I approached my adolescence. I still remember the publicity and excitement when, in 1960, Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann was captured in Argentina and taken to Israel to stand trial. He was hanged in 1962, but the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, continued to search for more war criminals. That search has continued well into this century.

As I grew into adulthood and began building a life of my own, my attentions shifted to matters of the present. I never forgot the past, but I couldn’t buy groceries with it. I had a life to live and a family to raise.

Over the years there would be an occasional announcement of another capture of a former Nazi war criminal. However, as time went on, I began to wonder if it was truly in the best interests of everyone to continue to pursue the criminals. I asked myself “At what point should something be put to rest?” It seemed to present a bit of a moral dilemma to be obsessed with hunting those who were complicit in the mass murders of the Holocaust with the intent of killing them, of settling the score. After more than fifty years, what was the purpose? What was to be gained? Couldn’t the use of so many resources been of greater benefit to Jews in particular and society in general if they were directed toward more benevolent ends? Weren’t we teaching the generations that vindictiveness and vengeance trumped love and compassion?

In the 1950s, I was told we must never forget because we don’t want it to happen again. I haven’t forgotten. But my understanding of that dark chapter in our history evolved. In my younger years, I suspect I subconsciously viewed “it happening again” as if it would involve the Germans clad in World War II vintage gear with Nazi emblems emblazoned on their clothing marching in lockstep with arms raised toward Das Fuhrer. My shallow understanding of the Holocaust betrayed my mind and allowed me to become complacent. I didn’t really believe that something so hideous could happen again. In fact, I couldn’t understand how it happened in the first place. I relegated my awareness of the Holocaust to a dank and dusty trunk in the attic of my consciousness.

In recent years, my memories of the Holocaust have somehow slowly awakened. After reading Gerda Klein’s Only My Life and Elie Weissel’s Night, I have finally begun to grasp the significance of the Holocaust. It was a time in human history where the collective conscience of a large group of people went to sleep, was anesthetized. It was a time when one group of people could dehumanize another group of fellow human beings. Seemingly without conscience or regret, Nazis could rip families apart. It didn’t concern them that husbands, wives and children bound by the same senses of duty, love and loyalty that governed their own lives were irreparably destroyed. In at least six million cases, the lives of innocents were taken in gas chambers or piles of burning bodies or at the end of a gun barrel. It was accepted, if not expected. The heart of humankind had stopped beating.

Imagine your horror if the storm troopers arrived unexpectedly in your home and broke your family apart, stripped you of your belongings and forced you to live in squalor as you awaited your inevitable end. For most of us, such a scenario is incomprehensible. But in Europe in 1944, it was a daily occurrence. We are asked by some to understand it and more importantly, to remember it. It mustn’t happen again.

I look at America in 2016 and my pulse quickens. I watch as politicians climb inexorably toward power on the backs of innocent victims. People like Donald Trump villainize large groups of people with the language of hate. Hard working human beings who have lived in this country for two or three decades are separated from their loved ones and deported because they lack “documentation”. Native born children are stripped of their parents and our twenty-first century storm troopers have no twinges of remorse. Entire religious groups will be banned if one candidate has his way and his followers see nothing wrong with this while they attend their own churches whose teachings are based upon loving their neighbors as themselves.

I watch as the country seems to lose its heart and becomes increasingly polarized. No longer are we the “United” States; we stand on one side or the other of some nebulous line where conservatives and liberals call names, build walls and tear down the dreams of their countrymen. That’s not what made America great. Despite Trump’s claims to Make America Great Again, his rhetoric only serves to debase it. You don’t make America great again by fostering hate and division.

Unlike the case of the Holocaust, we now try to remember America’s past so it can happen again. Sadly, we’re unable to retrieve those memories. Mr. Trump appears to have forgotten the inscription at the base of the lady of liberty standing in New York’s harbor. He seems to forget that our greatest days were when we came together and rose to the greatest challenges we faced. You don’t build strength but cutting yourself in half.

Seventy years ago, a people lost its conscience. The Nazis surrendered their humanity. Their hearts turned to stone as they enslaved, gassed and murdered not only six million Jews; they slaughtered their own dignity in the process. I’m not calling Trump or his supporters Nazis. That would make me guilty of the crime I’m discussing. However, when a candidate rises to political power with a saber of hate, when he suggests his opponents should be roughed up, when he offers to pay the legal fees for any thug that attacks his adversaries, when Mexicans are rapists and murderers, when all Muslims are evil, then the question must be asked, “What happened to the conscience of America?”

Even with our best efforts to remember the Holocaust, could it happen again? I leave that question to you to answer. I don’t smell the smoke of crematoriums, but I do see the telltale signs that the heart of humanity is hardening. If we want to make America great again, we need to look inward and awaken our moral conscience.

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