Saturday, July 23, 2016

preventing the holocaust: three things that went wrong

Are you like me? Do you have the same perennially nagging questions about WWII: How could the holocaust have been allowed to happen? And how can we prevent it from happening again? If so, read on. I've found a few answers this summer.

However, before I share this list I offer a disclaimer: I am not an expert in WWII. I have not engaged in academic research on these matters. I am, like most of you, simply curious, with a long-standing uneasiness regarding this part of human history. Even now similar narratives are playing out in other parts of the world. Will we look back in 60 years and wonder how we could have stood idly by while whole people groups are slaughtered?

1. Insidious Propaganda

The first reason I encountered for the holocaust (or Shoah) is explored in John Boyne's young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped PyjamasIn my opinion, the movie is even more achingly powerful than the book. You simply must watch it.

Although this is a work of historical fiction, it goes a long way toward answering my questions about the German populace during WWII. In this story, even the Commandant's family, living next door to a concentration camp, are unaware of its inhumane conditions. They don't realize the acrid smoke comes from burning bodies and that their own father is responsible for the daily murder of countless humans. They are shown videos that depict happy Jews, well-fed and grateful for a place to live. For the average German, it was less psychologically taxing to believe the propaganda than to push for answers, especially when those who did so risked personal harm.

2. Incredulity

I encountered another reason for the widespread devastation of the holocaust in Elie Wiesel's Night. This one gave me chills. Wiesel describes how a member of their Jewish community in Poland had been deported to a prison camp, escaped, and returned to warn the community. But nobody believed him. The horrors he described were so unthinkable that the other Jews decided he must have gone crazy. They had plenty of time to escape before they were rounded up, but they stayed put, confident that the war would soon be won and the Nazis would go home to Germany.

Ironically, I finished Wiesel's autobiography of the war years on the very day he died, old and full of years. What a gift he gave us all with his unflinching description of Nazi brutality. What a wonder he survived it! Self-deception can run very, very deep and animate the most egregious behavior imaginable. Let us not forget it.

3. Insufficient Sympathy

The final, nauseating insight is from Chaim Potok, author of My Name is Asher Lev and also of The Chosen, a fantastic novel about Jews in Brooklyn in the 1950's. He explains, "There had been public meetings in England, protests, petitions, letters—the whole machinery of democratic expression had been set in motion to impress upon the British Government the need for action [during WWII]—and not a thing was done. Everyone was sympathetic, but no one was sympathetic enough. The British let some few Jews in, and then closed their doors. America hadn't cared enough, either. No one had cared enough. The world closed its doors, and six million Jews were slaughtered. What a world! What an insane world!" (197, emphasis added)

If Potok is correct, immigration policy played a role in the mass devastation. Jews who had nowhere to go were left vulnerable to Nazi occupation, deportation, and death in a concentration camp.

Closer to home . . .

Are we believing lies about the true status of refugees?
     These are moms and dads with children who are desperate for a safe place to call home, not dangerous criminals.

Are we believing the truth when it is told? Or do we dismiss the stories as highly unlikely?
     Entire villages are being destroyed. Women are being sold as sex slaves to ISIS militants. Entire museums and ancient monuments are being blown to smithereens.

Are we sympathetic enough to do something about it?
"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them." (James 4:17 NIV)

The solutions are complex because the problems are complex, but let's not turn and look away. These are our brothers and sisters.


  1. I also wonder how much our “connected” and yet not society plays a role. We are the most connected (thanks in part to social media) and yet disconnected we have ever been. While some regularly watch or read the news, a disproportionate number of people rarely do or only view the headlines promoted by Facebook and other social media sites. Add to that the biased news we do get and it isn’t a wonder why people shut it out.