Days of Remembrance- April 2013, CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell
Count by ones to six million, the number of Jews killed during what has come to be known as the Holocaust, a number each second, and you will be here for months- not even naming names, each person a number. Six million Jews and five million other children of God- the disabled, the gypsies, political enemies, the unwanted, and those few who dared to speak out against the madness- were led to the gas chambers and the crematoria. We come together this morning to honor their memory.
We cannot truly understand what happened during the Shoah- “that whirlwind of destruction in . . . Hitler’s Germany. . . solely by learning historical facts and figures. . . Facts, figures and explanations are necessary. But we must also touch and feel and taste the dark days and burning nights. Our hearts must constrict in terror and grief. Our minds must expand to make room for the incredible. . . Darkness pervaded every street of every town, city and country occupied by Nazi Germany. The innermost circle of this geography of hell was the concentration camp. Once inside this circle, humanity moved from the light of day to the valley of the shadow of death. . . And so we must enter the past. But what passport will gain us entry into hell? Recognizing the fact that the world we are about to enter is utterly alien to the world we know, how can we expand the horizons of our awareness so that hell and the experience of it become real?”
Begin with the testimony of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate who describes his experiences in the wrenching text of his book Night, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed by faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
When Wiesel was asked, what is it that we can learn from the Holocaust, he offered this ominous reply, “That you can get away with it.” We come together to remember, painful as it is to confront this horror, because we know that the first step towards allowing such genocide to reoccur is to forget the lessons of history. As members of the military community, we take special pride in our role as the guardians of democracy and the defenders of those who are threatened wherever tyranny raises its ugly head. “We have learned,” Wiesel concludes, “not to be neutral in times of crisis, for neutrality always helps the aggressor, never the victim. We have learned that silence is never the answer. We have learned that the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.” Today we vow never to be indifferent. Today we VOW never to be indifferent.
Following its defeat in World War I, Germany sought an explanation for its economic hardship, and found a scapegoat in the Jews. “It began”, writes historian Raul Hilberg, “with job dismissals and pressures on Jewish business enterprises. Later (came) forced sales of companies, discriminatory property taxes, blocking of bank deposits, compulsory labor, reduced wages, special income taxes, lowered rations, confiscation of personal property, pensions and claims. . . Later (came) a series of housing restrictions, movement limitations and identification measures. The Jews of Germany were forced to undergo document stamping, name changes and the marking of their clothing with a star.”
All of which is to say that Hitler did not rise to power and immediately begin rounding up and exterminating the Jewish population. He began slowly, testing the waters, waiting for the outcry of the German people and the international community. When there was none, he escalated his program of genocide, what the Nazis called, “the final solution” to the Jewish problem, with impunity, secure in the knowledge that he could do as he wished with his victims and no objection would be raised. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent was targeted for death.
The large-scale murder of Eastern European Jews began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units, systematically collected the Jews in each community, forced them to dig mass graves, stripped and shot them. Two million lost their lives in this way. When this method proved inefficient, mobile gas vans were created. This, too, proved problematic- death was slow and the side effects gruesome. Ultimately, large-scale gas chambers were constructed, utilizing poison gas as the killing agent. At the height of its operation, 10,000 people per day were executed.
As new arrivals were brought to these camps, they were immediately separated- men to the left, women to the right- the first selection. The very old and the very young were sent directly to the crematoria, the others hustled off to forced labor. First came the confiscation of all valuables. Dehumanization continued with the shaving of heads and the removal of all body hair. Forced to strip off their clothing, the prisoners were made to run naked through the frigid air. “Within a few seconds”, a survivor notes, “ we had ceased to be men.”
Sam Halpern describes his experience thus, “After being awakened at 5:30 in the morning, we were given two minutes to dress. If someone was not ready, we were badly beaten. They gave us a piece of bread whose flour had been mixed with sawdust, often so hard and moldy that it could hardly be eaten. Since this was our entire food ration for the day, some people saved the bread. After this meager meal, thousands of camp inmates were made to stand outside in the yard from six to eight in the morning. It did not matter if the brilliant sun was shining, or the deathly winds of winter were blowing. It was the second phase of torture routinely worked into every day. We worked seven days a week, from eight in the morning until seven in the evening. Considering these conditions, it’s a miracle any of us survived. Most did not. I begged God for the opportunity to tell the world what the German people did to us.”
Yet the will to live sustained them under unimaginable conditions, and, in a situation where merely to survive was an act of triumphant resistance, the prisoners managed to subvert the system at every turn- stealing bread, substituting corpses for the individuals condemned by the Nazis, smuggling clothing, and maintaining a religious life. Such acts of heroism are a testimony to the depth and majesty of the human spirit. Viktor Frankl wrote of his experiences in a concentration camp in a remarkable book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. He writes that, “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last pieces of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer a sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way to die.”
One of the most famous victims of the Nazis was Anne Frank, a young girl in Amsterdam, Holland who perished in Bergen Belsen concentration camp at the age of sixteen. Her diary, which has become an international bestseller, survives as a historical reproach- “It’s really a wonder”, she writes, “that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death. I hear the approaching thunder, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right one of these days, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals, for perhaps the day will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
With all due respect to Anne Frank and her legacy, I disagree in one important aspect with the naïve teenager. I don’t believe that “people are basically good.” I believe, rather, that we are all born with the capacity for good as well as the capacity for enormous evil. The choices we make on a daily basis create our character and prepare us for moments of ultimate temptation. When we study the Holocaust, it is not simply to wring our hands over the events of a half-century ago. It is to confront our own evil instinct and the reality of evil in our world and to understand our responsibility to repair this broken-ness.
At Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust, there is a special grove at the entrance called the “Avenue of the Righteous.” Trees are planted there in memory of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to help the victims of the Nazis, proving that it is possible to rise above the cruelty which surrounds us. Maria von Maltzan was one of the rescuers. Her story is told in the book, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. “As a schoolgirl, I read Mein Kampf, and from the beginning I despised Hitler. I was heartsick at what he was doing to my country. Beginning in 1936, I helped any Nazi opponent hide to avoid being thrown in prison. I escorted many Jews out of Berlin. Once the SS came to my flat and Hans was hiding in the couch. I had fixed the couch so that it was impossible to open, and covered his hiding place with a thin material. The soldier asked, ‘How do we know nobody is hiding in there?’ I said, ‘If you’re sure someone is in there, shoot. But before you do that, I want a written signed paper from you that you will pay for new material and the work to have the couch recovered after you put holes in it.’ Of course he didn’t do a thing! He left! I always said, no matter what came along, ‘I prefer to be in a tough situation than to go to bed with a bad conscience.’”
The country of Denmark deserves special recognition, as the entire population refused to obey an order to round up the Jewish population. King Christian X himself put on a yellow badge to indicate his solidarity with his Jewish subjects, leaving an enduring legacy of moral heroism. Of the approximately 7400 Jews in Denmark, only 180 were caught by the Nazis. Miraculously, 100 of them survived, due to the persistent intervention of the king. The story of the rescuers must be told, lest we sink into total despair, and diminish the greatness of those who truly lived and sometimes died by their faith.
Pastor Martin Niemoller was among those who lived to regret his inaction in the face of the breakdown of civilization during the Nazi era. His words are a haunting reminder to us, lest we forget- “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.” If we do not speak out against evil, who will be left to speak for us?
In the final months of the war, the Allied Forces came face to face with the unspeakable and unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. Although rumors of the Nazi atrocities were widely circulated, nothing could prepare the troops for their first sight of the concentration camps. “I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth”, one soldier reported on August 27, 1944. On April 4, 1945, the Fourth Armored Division’s Combat Command A of the American Third Army liberated Ohrdurf. A week later, other units of the Third Army liberated Buchenwald. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Omar Bradley visited General George Patton on April 12, and together they toured Ohrdurf. Eisenhower, in a letter to Chief of Staff George Marshall, wrote, “The things I saw beggar description. . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where there were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’.” We who humbly stand as the heirs to this proud military history face an awesome responsibility to unmask the lie of those who seek to deny the reality of the Holocaust.
To remember is painful. To forget is perilous. Nothing can bring back the six million Jews killed by the Nazi machine, the five million other murdered children of God, or the brave soldiers and citizens who died in the war against evil. We must remember- we are their refuge against oblivion. If we fail to honor their memory, they die a second death.
Thank you for taking the time to recall this dark chapter in human history. May our time together inspire us with the commitment to remember the terrible price of silence and indifferent, and may we rededicate ourselves to confront oppression wherever it raises its ugly head.
©Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
4645 E. Marilyn Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032