Holocaust "Mis"-Remembrance Day
The motto of the Holocaust (if I should be so crass as to call it a motto, and not—as perhaps more fittingly I might—history’s most harrowing lesson), is “never again”. This phrase, whenever I bear it in mind, never ceases to affect me. Inevitably, it strikes me with profound heartache and awe. At one glance, it’s a phrase as simple as it is potent; as casual as it is urgent. Yet its simplicity might be its potency. It’s a phrase whose two words capture in one paralyzing thought the indomitable spirit of an ancient people and the indescribable evil of those under whom they died. And, to the score of at least six million victims, die they did. Sometimes quickly by gunfire, often slowly by noxious fumes, they suffered and died in ghettoes, pogroms, cleanses, and genocides from Poland to Slovakia and to every European country in between.
The phrase captures the height of the Jewish people’s resolution and strength. It’s imbued with the stoic defiance that’s long been their mark. History—from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, to that of Nero, to Titus, to Ferdinand and Isabella—knows the Jewish people’s fidelity and obstinacy only too well. It’s the same equanimity in the face of persecution and the same faithfulness to an otherwise absentee God that’s carried them undeterred from Babylon to Greece, from the Levant to Rome, from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and from that time until this in one never-ending Diaspora.
So too does this phrase of “never again” capture the Nazi regime’s depravity. Unspoken in the phrase, “never again” is humanity’s most heinous and ineffaceable of crimes. Depending on the way in which you view it, that crime we call the Holocaust was either the nadir, the apex, or the aberration of the purest, most unadulterated form of evil. Very likely, it was some combination of all three. But one needn’t feel pressured into giving a definitive answer on this matter, especially if doing so risks one’s thinking about this weighty part of our human story—however ugly and deviant it may be. Those most learned in theodicy haven’t yet answered it, and I don’t expect that you will. Nor, for that matter, have those most studied in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology offered an answer by which we can be made to feel confident.
What’s important, though, regardless of whose philosophy you embrace and whose you spurn, is that the phrase and the context from which it was born forces you to stop and to think. It must call to mind the nauseating fact that—within far less than a decade’s time—nearly forty-percent of the world’s Jewish population was lost, that the Third Reich was at long-last and at much human-bloodshed defeated, that the Second World War, first in Europe and then in Asia, was by the Allies won, and that the single, worst calamity in the history of mankind was now ours to memorialize and to preserve in thought. This and so much more is encapsulated in the phrase, “never again”. In this way, it continues to be both succinct and sweeping—implicit and manifest. It encompasses so very much, so very clearly in but so few words.
But a motto means nothing if its context is lost. Still less, if that context be completely ignored. For buried within the phrase, “never again” is the corollary phrase “never forget”. Even here the ordering might be wrong; one must first remember if he is then not to repeat his mistake. A man so unfortunate as to be amnesic and fully dispossessed of his memory surely doesn’t know that which is or is not an “again”—everything to him is new. All is unique. Neither does the dumb recidivist who can’t—despite his best mental efforts—keep track of his crimes. There is no precedent, no historical foundation upon which the presiding and current moment is drawn. Without the faculty of memory, he knows not that which he forgets nor how very much he forgets. In this way, the relevance of a motto dies with its maker and a lesson with its teacher. At that moment, the phrase becomes but a plume of words, a puff of air. Void of their meaning and incapable of sustaining themselves on their own, the words dissipate into the clouds—as so many empty utterances do. There they float unattached and unattended, floating above in that nebulous and boundless sky, at once vast, yes, but also saturated with so much wasted breath.
The act of forgetting, and the risk of relegating the phrase, “never again” to that saturated sky appears to be happening before us in real-time. Celebrated in Israel on this pleasant April morning is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Internationally, this solemn day of remembrance is actually observed at the end of January, but I think few will oppose or protest its being recognized in one year twice. It could even be that there is something symbolic about honoring the day in the wintertime, when the mood is one of frigidity and of death, and then again in the spring, when it’s one of renewed life, liberation, and birth. In either case, it’s a day that really needn’t have attached to it much symbolism at all. What it needs is sober observance. It needs poignant reflection and quiet lamentation—this is something I’d thought that we all knew fully and deferentially well. What I didn’t realize, and that which I’ve shockingly learned today, is that it needs much, much more attention. And it needs it rather fast.
Here I’m re-stating a few statistics that have absolutely shaken me and countless other Semites, secularists, humanists, or historians to our collective and reeling core. A study conducted and soon more widely to be released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or, in its abbreviated form, the “Claims Conference”, has revealed that American adults (some of whom are Baby Boomers, most of whom are Millennials) are resoundingly ignorant of the Holocaust. Granted, the Holocaust, or the Shoah, to which I do think it’s more appropriately referred, is a daunting and a towering subject (“Holocaust” is a word of Greek extraction, meaning roughly a “burnt sacrificial offering” on a quite large scale. “Shoah”, on the other hand, is veritably Hebrew, meaning “catastrophe” in that ancient and prescient tongue). Not only is the subject of the Holocaust macabre, which turns away those happy and insouciant millennial souls who’d rather not be bothered with all the emaciated corpses, and images of death, but it’s complex.
First, we grasp at the following: was the Shoah’s implementation (and its continuation) the maniacal brainchild of the intentionalist, or was it rather the expedient of the functionalist? Probably, the sheer knowledge of one or both of these terms puts you in an elect group of those with any advanced knowledge of the subject. In my own opinion, the Shoah can be attributed to the former; savage from beginning to end, it was the horrible product of the intentionalist’s mind. That is to say, it was from the outset a deliberate objective of the war—an intention. Why else would Hitler have incurred the military losses that he did in order to keep the whole thing going? Why would he have so carelessly misallocated resources, of which his generals were in so desperate a need as, all around them, the tenuous Eastern and Western lines collapsed? From the beginning, the “intention”, if you will, was always to liquidate (to borrow a term of Lenin’s—himself an unaware Jew on his matrilineal side) the whole of Europe’s Jewish population. Scholars will squabble, as is their job, but I can see no other reason other than it being Hitler’s goal from the very start. (As a counterpoint, the functionalist position maintains that the effort to exterminate all European Jewry was rather reactive than proactive—a response of expedience in a time of war).
No one expects the layperson to grasp, or really even to care all that much about the subtleties of intentionalism, functionalism, Hitlerian philosophy or the other convoluted intricacies of National Socialist thought. Assuming the last two things aren’t wholly inscrutable—which, very well, from a strictly ideological standpoint, they may be—men and women much more intelligent than I have racked their brains in an effort to understand the deeper and more tenebrous underpinnings of their implications. But it is absolutely incumbent upon every son and daughter of modern, civilized society to know the very basic facts of modern man’s most barbaric moment in time.
That said, the Claims Conference survey, administered to nearly 1500 American adults, revealed that only 31% of Americans and 41% of millennials think fewer than 2 million Jews were killed from the Shoah’s beginning until its end. 80% haven’t visited a Holocaust Museum—at home nor abroad—and a whopping 61% hadn’t a clue that Hitler, in 1932, was in fact democratically elected to what was a waning and dying Weimar Republic.
They’d be even more surprised to learn that General Hindenburg, much to his distaste for the virulent yet mesmerizingly charismatic Austrian upstart named Hitler, was forced to welcome the future Führer into his administration based on popular demand. For Hindenburg and for Germany, a coalition government was the only tenable path forward. At its helm, directly next to the robust, steely-eyed, and physically imposing Hindenburg would be Hitler: a man of slight and uninspiring build, a failed artist, a creditable soldier, a dry and verbose author, and yet—and most importantly of all—a captivating, gesticulating, and persuasive speaker. Probably, Hindenburg didn’t take seriously enough his new chancellor’s insidious talent. He might not have listened closely enough to his soon-to-be successor’s philippics nor watched with sufficient care his unfolding dreams of a thousand-year Reich. Hindenburg and the upper-crust of the German intellectual elite didn’t see in Hitler a serious political actor; they merely saw an actor. They didn’t see, or at least not until it was too late, the militant nationalist, the socialist, the racist, and the millennialist, that so endeared Hitler to the masses, most of whom were searching for a spark, for a vision, for a scapegoat, and for a Führer.
Embracing Hitler was a conclusion to which Hindenburg fatefully acquiesced. The Weimar Republic, since its inception in the post-World War I years, was at the time a factionalized and a tenuous thing. Domestic issues, chiefly those concerning the economy, were suffocating a country that had only forty years previously been unified into a recognizable nation state. The reparations, for whom this incipient Deutschland had France, Britain, and America to thank, had become an inescapable yoke; Germany simply couldn’t pay its bill. On top of that, the Weimar Republic had moved in the course of one generation away from its being a burly empire to a massive welfare state. Worse still, it had become a welfare state unable to keep its citizens on the dole. In time, these amalgamated debts (from both without and within) proved ever more stifling and embarrassing. The currency had been debased and so too had been their national pride and their distinctive Geist. Jobs, of course, were sparse—bread painfully more so—and many resorted to the ingenious if not nutritious use of sawdust as an ersatz substitute for wheat. Hunger abounded, morale plummeted, indignation rose, and inflation never knew that it could soar so high.
At first, Friedrich Ebert and then Paul von Hindenburg, whom already we’ve met, did their best to navigate this emerging storm. It was an unenviable circumstance into which they were elected and held duty-bound to serve. Kaiser Wilhelm II had just abdicated after the Great War’s end and the German people were abuzz with discontent. Pride was injured, pockets were empty, stomachs were hungry, and everyone on every side of the political aisle wanted a say. There was a general feeling of a “community of the trenches”—a type of military solidarity, shared amongst those who had served and bled in the field. It could be said that this was the only unifying political ideal that held any sway in the hearts of the countless men returning to their beloved Germany. Together, they had fought and they had suffered, but for what? they asked. The fact that their leaders sued for peace at the Treaty of Versailles was a literal stab in the back. They were disgruntled and they could think of no insult worse than to suffer further under the direction of the Bismarckian ancien régime to which they returned. On this point, and on only this point, did most Germans agree. Their unity, however, abruptly ended there. A path forward needed charting.
From this basis, in the 1920s and 1930s, there emerged four leading political parties vying for influence and pandering for the vote: from the left to the “right” (though, truly, none of them could be understood to have existed on the “right” as today we know it) they were the communists, the social democrats, the Christian democrats, and the national socialists. None was so attractive that it could win a majority outright, and thus, it became a government by all. Or at least it might’ve become such.
Hitler, then merely an incipient tyrant, bristled at the thought of a coalition government. To appease him, in 1933, Hindenburg named him chancellor. His Nazi Party had a strong electoral showing—as far as relatively novel political movements go—but its vote tally was far from overwhelming. No matter. A year later, Hindenburg—that brawny and regal Bavarian—fell ill at the height of his power and died. Hitler offered him a eulogy, awarded him state honors, wished him well to Valhalla (a pagan sort of heaven), and dashed off to set the Reichstag ablaze.
Is it forgivable that 61% of Americans don’t know this essential piece of human history? I’ll leave that to the dear reader to decide. I’m not an arbiter, but an author. That being said, I will on occasion try my hand at being both judge and journalist. The following is one such case. After having looked at all of these galling statistics, there is one that I find to be especially unforgivable, and it’s that 41% of adults and 66% of millennials don’t even know what Auschwitz is. A literal synonym for death, over two-thirds of the generation to which I—at times unenthusiastically—belong, haven’t a clue what Auschwitz means. Never mind some of the more esoteric details regarding Auschwitz’s initial conception and what it eventually came be, people don’t even know in the broadest sense the purpose for which it was erected.
Or where it was erected. Auschwitz, after all, is unto this day but a small town in the southwestern corner of Poland. It was this and nothing more until it was transformed first into a concentration camp and then into an extermination camp in the early 1940s. Provincially and less famously, it was known in its mother tongue as “Oświęcim”. The name was later to be stylized and more widely recognized in that strident, guttural German tone by which we know many other towns. Thus, the Polish, Oświęcim became the German Auschwitz as we know it (or, as the polls dishearteningly show us, don’t know it) today.
Thirty miles from Krakow and sixty from Ostrava in what is today’s Czech Republic—then an annexed tributary of Berlin and part of the Sudetenland—Auschwitz was ideally suited for the Nazis “Final Solution”. And their needs, such as a they were, proved to be exploitative, rapacious, bloody, and many. Auschwitz-I, the first installation of the compound’s eventual trilogy, was led and administered by the SS Commander Rudolf Höss. His job was simple: store if you can and dispose when you can’t the large and growing number of Polish political prisoners that had recently been brought under Germany’s domain.
Germany’s inheritance of these Polish personae non-grata had come about in an astonishing way. The Gleiwitz Incident, having taken place just a year before, had been an overwhelming and unmitigated success. Almost completely unknown to us today, it was the most effective and integral part of Operation Himmler whereby German soldiers, in the cover of night, posed as Polish officers in uniforms that they had previously (and likely, forcibly) stolen, only then to take by force a radio tower, sacrifice one of their countryman to make it appear as though there was a struggle, and then parrot some anti-German propaganda on the airwaves. At the end of the day, the German high command had orchestrated and successfully planted history’s most convincing false flag. Even leaders in the West were duped. Of course, this was in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which vivisected Poland into two and feelings for Hitler hadn’t yet turned to enmity. As soon as the Bolsheviks and the Nazis shook hands and parted ways, exhaling for a moment in the atmosphere of a brief détente, Gleiwitz and western Poland were for the taking. And take them Hitler did.
In this way, Auschwitz operated for some time. The Polish Jews, a newly inherited burden consequent the Gleiwitz Incident and the Stalin pact, were first shuffled off into the many overcrowded Polish ghettoes. However, this was an uninspiring response to the still unanswered Jewish question. On top of that, there were increasingly more logistical issues with which the Nazis had to deal. After all, the average German soldier’s cruelty and his brutality could be pushed only so far. Hitherto, soldiers were ordered to execute Jews point-blank with their own guns. Not only was this method of massacre expensive (the loss of vital ammunition was commensurate with the loss of life), but it was straining for the Teutonic soul. In what could only be explained as his interloping natural softness for the flesh and bone and the eerily similar eyes of human man, the German soldier admitted to having grown weary of murdering in the light of day scores of Soviet captives, Polish political prisoners, and the ever-pestilential Jews. Even in the frigid heart of the warrior, who was reared from birth to despise the Jewish “vermin”, the Red communist, and the Polish rube, and to extirpate them from this earth root and branch, the process didn’t sit with him well. It was, for the more sensitive soldier, becoming tougher to enjoy his three meals and to get his eight hours at night. Not for all, but for some.
Doubtless, it was this that led to Heinrich Himmler’s inquisitive visit to the Soviet Union. There, Brown shirt meeting Red, Himmler discovered in Stalin’s Purge a fetid alternative to the firing squad. In a rather crude way, Stalin had quietly perfected his ability to kill on a large scale. He did so in his gulag archipelagos with items that were considerably banal: vans, exhaust pipes, handcuffs, and poison. Like Francisco Goya laying eyes upon the work of Hieronymous Bosch, Himmler saw in the efforts of Stalin lurid inspiration. Today, the Russians use Novichok. Back then, it was mainly Carbon Monoxide. Himmler thought he could do one better. Under his aegis, Nazi scientists developed the cyanide-based compound, Zyklon B. Tested and approved (on humans, as you might well have guessed), Himmler ordered it shipped to Birkenau (the second of Auschwitz’s three compounds) and introduced it into the wallpaper, ceilings, and vents. Himmler’s innovation was a boon, and in a small way, German soldiers thanked him for their regained ability to rest at ease.
Additionally, on the point of logistics, the ghetto populations were swelling and something had to be done. One truly impactful uprising (that lasted for an entire month) was quite enough so far as the Einsatzgruppen, or the mobile killing police, was concerned. However violently and, ultimately, successfully repressed it was, German soldiers didn’t need the burden of having to prepare to squelch its sequel. One Warsaw uprising would suffice. Plans were re-thought, considerations made, and the tenants of the ghettoes were shipped quite literally like cattle to their new and final homes. The ghettoes were to be liquidated, and soon, so too would be their erstwhile inhabitants.
They arrived like Dante to the gates, into which crudely was inscribed the sadistic phrase, “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This maniacal epigram, if we are to believe all accounts, was a product of Höss’s insistence, if not of his mind. It was perhaps a clever literary nod to Dante, on whose gates read the ominous line, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", or as we’ve come to know it, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. The Italian poet’s fictive summarization of hell might’ve just as well applied to the hell on earth into which this new herd of Jewish captives were ushered. Women, children, the elderly, and the invalid were sent immediately to Birkenau, or Auschwitz-II (Auschwitz-III, much like its progenitor Auschwitz-I, would become an industrious, slave-driven outpost in which the IG Farben chemical company operated with a remarkably high profit margin and negligible labor costs).
There, back at Auschwitz-II, they’d be stripped, shaved, denuded, and hastened into the curiously windowless rooms whose adjoining chimneys never slept. Within five minutes—ten if you were in an exceedingly salutary and resilient state—the victim would be dead. It would be an agonizing and breathless death. Oxygen in one’s brain would find no home, as the thickening cyanide would bind more greedily to the mind and to the heart’s deprived and yearning cells. As for the men, they’d work until they met the same fate—be it by exhaustion, exposure, or—like their children and like their beloved wives—fumigation in the chambers.
In short, to those of my co-millennialists who haven’t the time nor the inclination to learn about Auschwitz, the Shoah, the Holocaust, Hitler, Stalin, Nationalism, Socialism,
Communism, purges, pogroms and all of the history that surrounds these ideas and these events which continue to influence us in our own day, I do hope I’ve been of some meager help. At the very least, I hope to have offered a springboard from which one can leap and seek knowledge his own. After all, it’s said that those unlearned in history are condemned to its repetition. And, referring back once more to that illuminating Claims Conference survey, 58% of respondents—assuming, of course, that they had any inkling at all about that which they spoke—fear that a genocide similar to that of the Holocaust could very well happen again. An alarming thought, and so shall it be, until we all commit, millennials most of all, to the undying concept of never again.