Letting the Holocaust Change Our World

An American intern observes a memorial at Yad Vashem and muses the critical questions behind how such atrocities could have come to be.

Written at Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem

Is it a mistake to frame learning about the Holocaust in terms of changing perspective?

Many arguments to increase the level of Holocaust education offered in American schools premise their conclusions on the notion that learning of the Holocaust ought to be a life-changing experience.

This assumes that the Holocaust does not fit in to everything else we believe.

Stars of David displayed at the Yad Vashem -Jan. 26, 2011 - AP

For many people, the most troubling question is whether the Holocaust is inconsistent with what we know or believe about God.

Others will ask if the Holocaust is consistent with what we know or believe about human nature.

It seems to me that these questions belong together naturally.

We must therefore ask: How could human beings formed in God’s image perpetrate such a monstrosity? The secondary question is then, not, “Why didn’t God intervene?” but rather: “If we are at all like God (and if not, what informs us that we shouldn’t commit such crimes?), why didn’t we intervene?”

Why didn’t we, as human beings, recognize and refuse to become complicit with evil?

To isolate responsibility to Hitler is to ignore the choice of human beings who willingly became Nazis; to question the Nazis’ humanity is to call into question the humanity of the Jews who chose to serve the Judenrat; to assign to the Judenrat the title of Judas begs a new title for the allegedly complicit, and undoubtedly silent Catholic Church; to impugn the Church is to distract the rest of the Western Europe from its silent indifference; to bury the Europeans in shame for their inaction is to distract our attention from unearthing accounts of ten thousand Jews dying of starvation and sickness every month in Warsaw from page 28 of the New York Times.

Denying humanity to the dehumanizers or their accomplices accomplishes nothing toward understanding the Holocaust in its true significance.

It is a panacea to alleviate the terror of recognizing that we as human beings are capable of such deeds.

If we can recognize that our cultures are all but branches from a single body of humanity, we must seek to discover what caused the gnarl that warped us from the planted root.

If Hitler was the rotten fruit that brought the cultured German bough to the sodden ground, what gravity kept the rest of that limb’s fruit clinging to his monstrous weight?

Philosophy, art, music, opera, rotting away with him, putrefying the entire miraculous web of veins and arteries connecting Germany to its noble roots, dragging its people through the mud of humiliation and sowing into the fertile soil of its culture hate, opposition, resentment! How did it happen?

The challenge and necessity of answering that question present to me the greatest value of reopening the pain-seared doors of memory to the Holocaust.

To reconcile our capacity for evil with our promised inheritance of divinity, to call into doubt the superiority of a culture that claims progressiveness, modernity, and titles of privilege for those who preach its social gospel; this is to allow the Holocaust to change our world.