What could I have asked?
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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
There are very few people still alive today who can testify to the horrors of the Holocaust, largely because any who survived the Nazis’ so-called final solution would have to be in their 80s and 90s today.
It was not until 2005 that the United Nations set a date for the observance of Holocaust remembrance, January 27, and that was sixty years after the camp at Auschwitz had been liberated by the Red Army in 1945.
Only then, when soldiers marched into the camps in the closing months of the war – and while the Nazis were still in power in Germany – did the world begin to learn what had happened to millions upon millions of civilians who had disappeared from the European continent during the twelve years of the Third Reich. Eventually, US and British troops liberated more camps as they discovered them on their push towards Berlin, and news reports began relaying the awful truth to those who had been either oblivious or who had turned a blind eye.
Among them were the people of Germany itself, a great number of whom simply hadn’t understood where all the Jews, the gypsies, the communists, the immigrants, the Muslims, the disabled, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the homosexuals, the conscientious objectors and the political activists had been taken.
For years, the rest of the world just couldn’t believe that a civilian population could have been kept in the dark for so long, denied the truth, blinded by ideology, essentially forced not to think or talk about the things that were secret. At the same time, nobody could thoroughly fathom the depths of evil to which those who had orchestrated the Holocaust could have sunk so completely in so short a time.
As the son and grandson of German family members who lived through the Third Reich and who witnessed much but were kept ignorant of more, I grew up in a time when the truth was out there, the testimonials were broadcast, the details were documented, the chapters added to the history books and the terrible places themselves opened to the public, yet I have to admit that I stopped short of asking questions.
What could I have asked?
There were stories, of course. The family did not conceal from me some of the things that could be remembered. Neighbors who were taken away during the night because of their faith. Teachers removed and never seen again after saying things that couldn’t be said. Trains full of people traveling east, supposedly to labor camps. Wanderers, society outcasts, suddenly gone from the streets and marketplaces.
Where did they go? What happened to them?
“We never knew.”
More than six million Jews were executed by the Nazis, some of them by firing squad in forests where they had been forced to dig their own mass graves, some in groups of two dozen or more at a time in the gas chambers, some by starvation and disease in the camps. Many were burned afterwards; many were simply piled high and bulldozed into pits.
The few genuine testimonials that we have today were recorded by historians in the decades after the war. Some became bestselling books. Some were just flickery memories retold in snippets to anyone who’d listen.
Today, the Holocaust is packaged into our education, much like so many other horrors of the past. It’s there in black and white, and it’s part of a school grade or a college term paper.
You an read all about it, if you like.
But you don’t like.
Fifty or more years ago, we vowed to learn from the dreadful things, promised to stand up against evil, to defend the rights of all people to live in peace, to oppose oppression and to speak out when we witnessed wrongdoing, and we did these things because the world had only just awakened to the dreadful reality.
Can we still say the same today of the next generation, and the one after that? Can we still impress upon them the very real horror that was the Holocaust and our collective fear that it might happen again?
Time has not been kind to the vows we made while the few survivors still walked among us.
And that’s how it happens.