Last Friday, Jan. 27, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was on this date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were liberated by Russian troops. This set of concentration camps included several facilities within them.
There were the forced labor facilities where the fittest prisoners were assigned to build critical materiél for the war effort. They got to work until they could not and then were murdered.
Most notable were the gas chambers which were disguised as shower facilities. The victims were stripped of their clothing and jewelry, ushered into the chamber and then either pure carbon monoxide or pesticide Zyklon B was released to kill them. It is estimated that about 1,100,000 were executed at the Auschwitz camps from May 20, 1940, to Jan. 27,1945. Many prisoners, when offloaded from their trains, were assessed for usage, separated from their families and many went immediately to the chambers to die.
Also, there were medical facilities where various, often fatal, experiments were conducted on twins, dwarfs, the mentally ill, homosexuals and others. Finally, there were the crematoria where the dead were incinerated. A pulverizing machine was found that ground down the bones and skulls for use as soil nutrients. Very efficient process: capture prisoners, transport them by train, unload, sort, strip, gas, burn up, gather up what’s left, grind that up and spread out on the fields. Ashes to ashes in the most horrific way.
Not all were killed in the chambers. At several locations the Jews and other prisoners were put up against the “Black Wall” and shot. Turns out this was more expensive than putting them in the back of sealed cargo trucks and piping the exhaust into the trap. Many just died slowly by starvation or typhoid or other diseases while waiting for the SS to figure out a better way to resolve the “Jewish Problem.”
There were over 25 such concentration campus during the Nazi dictatorship from 1933-45. Additionally, there were over 1,100 attached satellite smaller or specialized units scattered around Germany and its occupied territories during the war. These camps were managed by the SS (Schutzstaffel or Protection Squadrons). The SS operated these concentration camps during the Nazi dictatorship (1933-45).
But is any of this really news to us? It is not. I doubt very seriously if anyone reading these thoughts would be the least bit tainted as a Holocaust denier. We all believe it happened. We have no complicated thoughts about if it happened or how much of it happened nor have we slivers of doubts that there really were more, perhaps far more, than those 6,000,000 Jews. The homosexuals, Romani, Jehovah Witnesses, Soviet POWs, Poles, the mentally ill and disabled and political dissidents have to be added to that number.
Try this comparison as a way of understanding how many were murdered in the Holocaust. The population of our State of Indiana as calculated in 2021 was about six million eight hundred thousand (6,800,000). That means if we Hoosiers were the chosen people of the Nazi Holocaust, all who now live in Indiana would now be dead. Every single person living between the waters of Lake Michigan and the waters of the Ohio River — DEAD! MURDERED! You and I included.
Not dead and buried mind you. Dead and burned up and ground up and spread out on the fields which would have no farmers to tend to the dirt of the dead.
I expressed the hope at the top of these thoughts “Would that words were enough.” Enough to soften the grief, bring logic to the incomprehensible. Clearly there are neither enough words in total nor words with enough meaning to do so. What words in the languages in use around this global village can convey the elimination of over six million people in the space of five years?
I love words. I’m pretty fluent in my native language. I do crosswords. I do an OK Wordle. But I cannot possibly arrange words in any determined order that will convey evil at this scale. I cannot come up with the amount of speakable profanity that would damn to the deepest Hell these perpetrators of this much evil. I cannot.
I just finished reading Chaim Potok’s novel “My Name Is Asher Lev.” Asher is a brilliant artist tightly woven into the incredibly conservative Jewish Hassidic tribe. He and I share the birth year of 1943. For his community and for all post-war Jews the Holocaust was a very real and exceedingly painful recent living memory.
A component of their grief I had not understood was made clear to me when Asher was told by his father that, “Yes, they killed millions of us. And they also killed countless millions more who would have been sired and birthed by those who were murdered. If you kill one of us now, you have killed all those who would have followed from our act of living.” The statement was said as a quiet matter of fact. A revelation of a reality that would never become real. A clarity about a future that would never have a past.
The German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, came as close as I can imagine in expressing how sentient, caring, compassionate, and confessing humans can respond to this capital “H” Holocaustatrocity. He said this about himself just after the war:
“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.”
Niemöller was admitting that the Holocaust happened because of the perverse nature of the Nazi regime as well as because the normal, good and religious people of the era did not intervene to stop it. There was sin on both sides.
But that was then, and this is now. Could such an event as the mass murders of the innocents happen again? Have we not attained a more sharpened awareness of evil that we would act as Niemöller and his people did not. We would not stand back and not get involved because, well, we were/are not “Them”.
I do not believe there is a recurrence of a modern-day holocaust. I’m pretty sure there isn’t. But maybe I’m missing something. I am paying attention to the aftermath of the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. I watched what happened after George Floyd died in Minneapolis. And Brianna Taylor in Louisville and a bunch of others, mostly Black from all over this land. Their deaths do not make for a holocaust at least on the Nazi spectrum.
We are, though, witnessing a sad commentary on how parts of our society keep control of some other parts of our society. Some control is by legislative means. Far too much by uncontrolled personal weaponry. But I’m not black so I have not spoken out. I’m not really poor so I have not spoken out.
And I’ve watched children be murdered while learning. And their teachers murdered while teaching. I offered up my “thoughts and prayers” as did the rest of my nation’s people after Uvalde, Columbine, Parkland and so many other schools bled. But I’ll let the legal structure and our legislative structure take care of it so I have not spoken out.
And I drive through Louisville and see some folks camped out under the I-65 overpasses. I think, “Wow that must have been cold when that below zero cold spell hit back a month or so ago.” But we have good wood for our stove. We and our cats and dog are ok, so I have not spoken out.
And here on our own Orange County roads I drive passed living quarters we label as “substandard”. By what standard? I guess our Windsong Farm on Oak Grove Road is standard. Or compared to what I’ve seen we are super-standard. But I make my donation to Habitat for Humanity and have not spoken out.
Why have I not spoken out? I say to myself I have not the words to speak out. By that I mean what if I did speak out about the killing of people not like me? Who would I speak to? My legislators, my sheriff, my township trustee? Part of me is a Niemöller. I don’t have a stake in the immediate problem, so I’ll pass on it until “they come for me.” But I shall discover what Niemöller discovered. There will be no one to speak for me.
Even so, would that words were enough, which they are not, we need still to speak them.
Even so, certainly we can still have enough words to
Keep the Faith — Do the Job — and Ask for Help.
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