Published in the Daily Texan 27 April 1995
Thursday, 27th April is Yom HaShoah. On this day Jews, in Israel and around the world, remember the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered six million Jews (one third of all the Jews in the world). But the murders were merely a coup de grace on a much greater Nazi crime. First they sought to quash the humanity of their victims.
Imagine being so hungry that you would consider eating cockroaches. Imagine coveting your child's pitiful lump of stale bread. Imagine you are the member of a Judenrat and you have to give the Nazis names of people to deport to the camps. Whom will you choose of your neighbors? Can you refuse? Isn't it futile to refuse - they will take you and your family as soon as you do? Can you fight? With what - the first thing the Nazis did was disarm everyone?
At every opportunity the Nazis delight in making you do the abhorrent. Forget kosher food - thin bacon soup is what they feed you. Forget the Sabbath, forget Yom Kippur - it's hard labor or be shot. Forget privacy - a whole city has been herded into a walled ghetto of a few blocks - you must share a room with several families.
So in Warsaw the Nazis have scheduled the final deportation of the remaining Jews for the first night of Passover - to transform the joyous festival of freedom into a day of mourning. It is April 19th 1943. The ghetto is eighteen months old. Starvation, disease and deportation have reduced half a million people to a remnant of 60,000. At 3am Nazi forces invade. They are shocked to meet armed resistance. They retreat. The starved defenders in the ghetto have but a few hundred guns and Molotov cocktails but they fight ferociously. The Nazis laboriously raze the ghetto building by building. After 27 days the ghetto is no more, but the news of the revolt has spread throughout Europe and the world.
On Yom HaShoah we remember the heroism as well as the tragedy of the Holocaust. But we must do more. We must understand its lessons. It is a travesty to measure the enormity of the crime merely by the number killed. We all will die. But the Nazis shattered lives and crushed humanity - even when they did not kill. And they made accomplices of whole populations.
Why did they do it? It is too glib to say that racism was the cause. Racism was merely a tool to blunt the sensitivity of the bureaucratic functionaries who took part. Hitler wanted to eliminate the Jews because of values they carry. Values which are the very antithesis of his vision of the world. He was not wrong to see Jewish ideas as subversive of his tyranny. A passion for justice, liberty and personal responsibility beats in every Jewish breast. It is contagious.
Why did the general population acquiesce in the crime? It is too easy to condemn and say: "the Germans are a special evil breed"; or to whitewash and say: "they didn't know". No. They obeyed orders. They were afraid to oppose: "what can I do - I am just one?" How many times have you heard the saying, "you can't fight city hall"? How many times have you heard of someone arrested and thought, "they must have done something or why would the police have called?" And how many times have you thought "the people in authority know more than I do"?
Schindler proves that you can always put a spanner in the works. So did the people of Denmark. The Nazis made the Jews of Europe wear a yellow star ("all the better to catch you with!"). But the Danes made it clear that all Danes would wear the star. The Nazis backed down. The Jews escaped to Sweden.
So this Thursday I shall renew my commitment to moral values and compassion and justice. Law and justice are the very life of civilization. But every order, every law, every decree must be just. And if it is not? Well, one can circumvent "city hall" even when it is difficult to fight.
This page revised 6 July 1999