You may remember that I visited Jerusalem about 16 months ago and spent two weeks studying at Yad Vashem, the World Centre for Holocaust Research. It is a place that serves two primary purposes - the first to give the 'memory and a name [yad vashem | ד ושםי ]' to the many millions of now nameless Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, the second to educate the world about the causes.
If you want to read a few of my thoughts from that visit, please visit an old blog of mine here.
I read, watched and listened to many hours of testimony, primary source evidence and the scars left by that tragedy. A few things stuck:
1. The Holocaust ['Shoah' (Ha Shoah, catastrophe | השואה) in Jewish circles] was unique among genocides because it was a whole-race destruction based on idealism and not on aggrandizement of land or property. Jews dies simply because they were Jews, not because the Nazis coveted the land or wealth of that population.
2. The ideology behind the Shoah has its roots in (among other places) Christianity and the first Christian tragedy of the death of Christ. Martin Luther joined many of the Early Fathers in an anti-semitism that was later nurtured in the heart of an Austrian artist and eventual Chancellor of Germany. Indeed, his book Mein Kampf cites Luther a number of times, regarding him in the light of a national hero. (I ought to note here and now, that the Jehovah Witnesses died in their thousands because they wouldn't support the Nazi ideology)
3. Three groups of people played their part - the victim, the perpetrator and the by-stander. The first two are perhaps obvious, with the third including you and me in this day when people still die in genocides.
Of the accounts that I heard all those months ago, of all the faces of children I looked at as they played mere days before their screaming agonising frightening execution in the dark, of all the piles of personal paraphernalia that now characterises that event, of all the hours of evidence given by relatively banal civil servants defending their acts of genocide as 'orders', one encounter stuck. That was of a women who sat before us in the room where we were gathered.
She was a women in her seventies, a retired nurse. She was well dressed, well presented, the happy mother of children (one of her sons was our tutor). She had lived a broadly good life, except for one thing: she didn't know her name. She knew the name that her adoptive parents gave her, a women into whose arms she was thrown (yes, thrown) while her birth-mother queued for her death. She landed in the arms of a stranger who took her in (to their own mortal risk and against vast odds of landing in supportive arms) and raised her as their own. The lady didn't know who her real family were, who she really was. In many ways she still felt anonymous, rootless, the un-murdered victim.
Rarely do we see these people with our own eyes. We read of them in our history lessons or in books that we dare to glance through. This Shoah was real and the victims real. They are still among us today as we carry on with our business. Though they are the 'lucky' ones. They didn't have to dig their own grave before being shot into it. They didn't have to experience that moment when lights dimmed and poison filled the air. They didn't have to regard the taunting eye of a gun chamber or a line of uniformed boys pointing rifles.
This happened in our lifetime. This happened in the age of television and telephone. This happened because bystanders (on all sides) stood by and watched madmen construct vile ideologies.
Which means that it could, just could, happen again (if we let it).
On this Holocaust Memorial Day, may Yahweh bless, preserve and watch over all those who died because of their heritage, and over us who can never fully comprehend their Passion.