Thursday, May 26, 2011

Victims of Hatred

Copyright 2011, Charles S. Weinblatt

In writing about the Shoah (Holocaust), I was forced to examine human behavior during the most appalling and perfidious genocide in history. How could apparently normal people become willing accomplices in the murder of their Jewish neighbors? What persuaded German citizens, and their allies (Einsatzgruppen), along with many other Europeans, to believe that all members of the Jewish religion should be removed from society or destroyed? Why did they also accept the euthenasia of homosexuals, Roma and the physically and mentally disabled? Was it so easy to convince citizens that their healthy, friendly neighbors should be placed into forced labor, incarcerated and exterminated?

Anti-Semitism has deep roots in the world, especially in Europe, where Christianity promoted Jewish hatred for two thousand years. Millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children were murdered during the Crusades, the English Expulsion and the Spanish Inquisition. From the Dark Ages through the Reformation, the Church influenced Europe with a firm grip. Isolation and denigration of Jews was a firmament of Church philosophy.

Requiring a scapegoat to distract rebellious societies, the Church found Jews a very appropriate target. It has always been easier to hate than to trust or tolerate. Jews did not accept Jesus as the messiah. They worshipped God differently and with a different language. They kept to themselves. Jews often looked and acted differently. They observed different holidays. They held jobs deemed distasteful to Christians. Jews were forced to live in ghettos, rather than among Christians. The Church and local governments found it useful to maintain that Jews were not to be trusted or allowed to assimilate. Moreover, Jews were a peaceful group, without any military capability, unable to defend their communities from attack. In essence, Jews were a perfect scapegoat for Church leadership.

Over the centuries, European anti-Semitism became increasingly endemic. With frequent eruptions of pogroms and murder, blind hatred of Jews was never far from the surface of Christian society. Rumor and innuendo captured the minds of Europeans. They came to believe that Jews were responsible for murdering Christ, bringing plague, butchering Christian children to use their blood for matzo, and all manner of insidious, mendacious motivations. The publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a vicious anti-Semitic book filled with lies and innuendo, inflamed European hatred of Jews. First published in Russia in 1903, the text was translated into multiple languages, and disseminated internationally.
Not all anti-Jewish doctrine came from Rome. Luther pushed for the destruction of European Jewry as well. In Thirteenth Century England, the crown called for Jewish persecution and expulsion. The result was tens of thousands of murdered Jews. Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Spain produced the Inquisition, which resulted in the murder of about a million innocent Jews.

Decades turned into centuries. Centuries turned into millennia. Meanwhile, the Church’s effort to expel and murder Jews gradually declined. But, the latent hatred and mistrust for Jews remained, passed along from generation to generation. Very few European nations gave Jews the same rights as Christians. Hitler’s endeavor to remove and annihilate European Jews required little vigor to impose. In fact, it was a useful distraction for the Nazi regime, to combat public anger from government austerity programs and political challenges. The old mistrust and hatred of Jews easily rose to the surface, focused by incessant, vigorous propaganda. Very little effort was required to turn Twentieth Century Europe against their Jewish neighbors.

Meanwhile, Jews remained largely as they had been throughout time. They studied Torah, desired higher education, worked jobs that no one else desired, married and had children. Their values changed little over the centuries, despite near-constant efforts to isolate, expel, enslave and murder them. Jews often resisted assimilation, instead appreciating the importance of their time-honored values. Yet, Jews displayed no belligerence or hegemony. They desired no power over their neighbors. For Jews, the bitter taste of abhorrence, slavery and murder was a constant companion. Still, they desired only to live in peace with their European neighbors. This was interpreted by their enemies as weakness. Their ancestral homeland, Israel, was conquered repeatedly; their sacred temples destroyed. Throughout the Diaspora, Jews remained devoted to their religion and culture; they embraced it as they had for two thousand years, despite being considered second-rate citizens or no citizens at all. Jews threatened no one. Yet, they were despised by most Europeans. And, despite the known horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism in Europe is again on the increase.
Humans are complex beings. There is a great deal more to us than the ubiquitous battleground of good versus evil. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both. We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring; we love and we despise. During the Holocaust, some Nazi concentration camp guards secretly aided Jews; while some Jewish kapos were more brutal than Nazi guards. While it seems simple to assign blame to an entire religion or political group, some deserve more blame than others. Despite the narcissistic nature of Nazi propaganda, there remained individuals, families and small groups who aided Jews. Altruism for all of humanity defied the Nazi vision of a pure Aryan society, removed of all traces of "defective" genes. So while most of Europe was only too happy to help Nazi Germany rid them of their Jewish neighbors, there were some Europeans who resisted the call to remove all traces of Judaism.

Despite enduring centuries as victims, bearing the brunt of falsehood, deception and vicious brutality, Jews remained loyal to their God, Torah and culture. They continued to find joy in a simple life of obedience to their time-honored traditions. For Jews, life has never been good or bad, but good and bad. Throughout history, Jews have found few moments of peace within an eternity of harassment, slavery expulsion and murder.

Within the fetid trains and barracks of Nazi-occupied Europe, lovers dreamed of being together, rabbis tried to keep faith alive and parents anguished desperately over lost loved ones. Into this churning crucible of horror, lovers, parents, children and grandparents were deposited. As they disembarked train cattle cars inside of Nazi death camps, husbands and wives were separated. Then children were pulled away from their mothers. Most were quickly gassed or shot to death, including 1.5 million children. The survivors were starved, beaten, had medical experiments performed upon them and were placed into slave labor for German industrialists and the Nazi war machine. Yet, even in this life of pure hell, their passion for Judaism did not disappear. Ironically, within a culture of death emerged a passion for Torah and life. Most Jews did not abandon their faith in God; instead, they carried it into the darkness of brutality, torture, sickness and death. Into the gas chambers of Nazi death camps, the Jews of Europe emptied their faith, love and tradition.

In search of a pure Aryan society, the culture of Germany was abducted by a tarnished morality; one which approved of the euthenasia of undesired people. This was cold, calculated genetic manipulation, in order to produce a Europe that was Judenrien. Repugnance, despair and darkness exist within human nature; just as affection, compassion, tolerance and devotion also exist there. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine these vastly disparate portions of our psyche.

A complex palette of emotion and behavior churned within the Shoah. Powerful infatuation and tender love also existed during times of horror and despair. So did a deep commitment to faith and God. Nazi Germany could remove every article of wealth from the Jewish people, but not their love of family, adoration of Torah and devotion to a two thousand year-old culture. Tradition is the cement that holds the Jewish people together. At the very end, naked and cold, Jews carried their tradition, values and faith into Nazi gas chambers; a tapestry of ancient wisdom, ritual devotion and deeply personal connection.

The world is seldom seen in black and white, or even shades of gray. During the Holocaust, in the midst of terrible anguish, beauty existed. That beauty was enveloped by despair. Lovers secretly met in fervent passion. Clandestine weddings were held. At some concentration camps, such as Theresienstadt, Jews created schools, clinics, orchestras, politics and literature. There were even some births, hidden from the SS for as long as possible. Here, deep within the trepidation of impending death, surrounded by sickness and brutality, we find Jewish love, compassion, creativity, tradition and deep faith in the God of their ancestors.

Holocaust survivors lost everything, but perhaps gained something as well. Certainly an honest examination of the Shoah must reveal torturous cruelty, violence, brutality, rampant sickness, forced labor and death. The survivors had to go on living without all of their family, friends and loved ones.  Victims who survived were faced with a deep, unrelenting depression.  It's fair to say that Holocaust survivors lost not just their wealth and property, but everyone and everything they loved.  However, despite the starvation, brutality, slavery and inhuman conditions, despite the disease and malice, the incarcerated Jews of Europe continued to practice their religion and their traditions. Many never lost their belief in God. By maintaining their faith, tradition and culture, survival became a victory of Jews over Hitler. Today, the millions of survivors’ progeny and the state of Israel proudly proclaim this Jewish victory. Like a fabulous phoenix, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Shoah victims rise above the ashes of the Holocaust; a treasure and emblem of Jewish endurance. Here, one can feel hope for the survival of the human spirit.

Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, Jacob's Courage