Sunday, July 3, 2016

Passing of the Last Generation of Holocaust Survivors

The recent news of the death of Elie Wiesel reminded me of Mike Jacobs.  Mr. Jacobs, who founded the Dallas Holocaust Museum, spoke at the university where I taught about a dozen years ago; sadly, he passed away almost two years ago.  I am ashamed to say I have only skimmed his book, Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs' Triumph over Tragedy, but the title very much conveys the tone of the talk he gave.

In fact, the title is too much of an understatement.  "Triumph over tragedy" can mean many things, including revenge, but in the case of Mike Jacobs, it meant something much more rare:  triumph over bitterness.  Given what he saw, what he experienced, and what he lost, I do not think it would be possible to forgo bitterness without cooperating with divine grace to the extent of heroic virtue.  If an Armenian monk not visibly in union with Rome could be declared both a Saint and Doctor of the Church, perhaps Mike Jacobs is now a Saint, though one who will never be canonized.

It will probably be another ten, fifteen, or even twenty years until the last of the death camp survivors passes away, but we are clearly at a point where their numbers will be falling rapidly.  When we lose them, we will lose a sense of the reality of the horrors they endured.  If you want to know what I mean, compare how we think about World War I with the effect it had on the course of history over the past hundred years.  It brought about the end of many of the traditional structures of Europe that made Europe the center of Christendom, including the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the fall of the Tsar; it set up the conditions for both Nazism and Communism; it made nations reluctant to intervene against Nazism before it was too late; and it triggered a boom in decadence and occultism that would be more obvious were we not experiencing an even bigger boom right now.  How do we think about it, though?  Merely as a quaint prelude to World War II and "the Greatest Generation".  We think of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.  We have photos, documents, and artifacts that testify to the horrors of World War I, but without human witnesses, it necessarily feels somewhat imaginary.  That will soon be happening to the Holocaust, and the world will truly have lost something when it happens.

When I see articles written in response to the death of Elie Wiesel saying "now it is up to us to remember", though, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that too few people understand what the point is, what is the thing that we really need to remember.  Many people think what we should remember is, to quote Donald Duck, "Oh, boy!  Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!" ... where such things presumably cannot happen.  Gratitude and patriotism are good things, but they are NOT the lesson the Holocaust teaches, and a naive American exceptionalism is in fact close to the polar opposite of what it teaches.  Many others see the lesson as being that if we are not vigilant, others may do terrible things like this to us.  I will concede that at least this is one of the lessons of the Holocaust, but not one of the more shocking or important ones.  There are two of those.

To understand the first lesson, consider that although some people can obviously run faster or jump higher than others, human physiology limits how fast anyone can run and how high anyone can jump.  We may not know exactly where these limits are, but the current world records are probably pretty close to the maxima, and we would expect, say, the average speed of all adults in any given city in the 100-m dash to fall within the range of speeds for people we know.  

It is natural to expect an analogous situation to apply to evildoing.  We know that people can do some pretty terrible things, but surely human nature must provide a limit to how evil a person can be, and we have a pretty good feeling for where that is, right?  Well, even if such a limit does exist, it did not prevent Mengele from performing abominable experiments on children that he met and knew -- demonstrating a magnitude of evil that is entirely beyond my comprehension.  Well, what about nations?  Surely in any large nation the good people and the bad people must average out to pretty much the same value everywhere, right?  Again, the answer is no.

So the first lesson is that we have much more freedom to choose good or evil, both as individuals and as nations, than we might have reasonably expected.  We cannot trust to human nature to keep things from becoming too bad; we must instead actively and consciously restrain ourselves.  

The second lesson is closely related to the first.  It is not just that if we are not careful, we might suffer horrible deaths.  Whether we are talking about leprosy or Ebola or any of dozens of other horrific diseases, that possibility has been known for ages.  No, the lesson is that if we are not careful, we run the real risk of becoming more evil than we can fully comprehend.  It can happen here, unless we prevent it.  It has already happened in a "civilized" nation with a culture nearly identical to ours.

It would be wrong to close on a note that is so grim it might sound hopeless, so let me instead leave you with a quote from Jesus in John 16:33b:
In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.
EDIT:  It occurred to me after submission that there is another lesson, this one slightly more reassuring:  There is a suicidal component to evil.  This can be seen time and time again, but Nazi Germany is perhaps the most outstanding example.  If the Reich had stopped at being nasty and discriminatory, it would not have become the most prominent symbol for evil in the modern world.  If the Reich had been content with annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, it would probably still be around today, and it might have survived if it had merely held onto half of France and half of Poland without also attacking the U.S.S.R., but of course it did.  Germany even declared war on the U.S.A. when America might well have been content to confine our war to Japan after Pearl Harbor!  And of course the theory of Aryan supremacy was most thoroughly disproved by the very test the Nazis chose to put it to:  world war.  Evil sews the seeds of its own destruction.

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