This year, April 24th (on the Hebrew calendar, Nissan 28th), is Yom HaShoah, or, in English, Holocaust Remembrance Day. While this holiday may be primarily observed by Jews/Israelis, these are far from being the only people whom the Holocaust affected, or the only people to whom it is – or, at least, in my feelings, ought to be – important. While there are many varying customs and traditions for the observing of this day of remembrance, the root of all these observances IS just that – that of remembrance. Remembering the millions of people, including six million Jews, victims of the Nazis, who were killed. Remembering the concentration camps, gas chambers, torture. Remembering those who dared to stand up – and those who suffered or paid the ultimate price for doing so.
Looking back at what happened in Nazi Germany now, we gasp in horror. We say, “How could such a thing have happened? How could people let it happen? How were people so heartless, so cruel, back then?”
We shudder. Then we sigh with relief, safe in the knowledge that such a thing could never happen now. Thank goodness people are different, thank goodness the world is different. Thank goodness such a terrible thing could never occur today. Things are better now, much better. We’d never let our country be taken over by someone like Hitler. We’d never let six million people be murdered because of their birth. We’d never let anything like the Holocaust happen now. It couldn’t. Things are different.
To a certain extent, perhaps this is true. Most likely, we aren’t going to have an exact repeat of the Holocaust as it happened in the 1930-40s. History may repeat itself, but not to such a degree – at least, I don’t think so.
But are we really so far away from the possibility of a new Holocaust? Really?
I watched a movie, The Wave, which was based off of an actual experiment that was really done. In the movie, a history teacher starts a new “movement” in his class. At first beginning with the teacher simply addressing his class about discipline, the situation soon progresses to an official group having a motto (“Discipline, Community, Action!”, a symbol, a name (“The Wave”), a salute – even membership cards. Oh, and, not to forget, monitors, whose job it is to watch their fellow students and report back if anyone breaks group rules, which stress working as a team and eliminating individualism for the sake of the whole. The students are instructed to recruit new members for this new movement, and proceed to do so avidly, until practically the whole school is involved one way or another.
When one girl tries to stand up against the overwhelming group, writing articles for the school newspaper claiming that the teacher is brainwashing the students, she is argued with, snubbed, and then threatened for going against the group. I could write much more about this movie, but I hope I have gotten my basic point across by now. The movie culminates in all the members of The Wave (now a truly huge group), being informed that The Wave is actually a nation-wide, cross-schools movement of youths. They are told to attend an assembly (only totally committed members, of course; once the auditorium is full, the doors are locked and guards posted to prevent anyone unauthorized from entering), where the leader of this national movement will be speaking.
Eagerly, the students flock to the assembly.
There, after some waiting for this unknown leader to appear, when people are beginning to be impatient the teacher pulls back a curtain to reveal…
a picture of Adolf Hitler.
The point is clear – although I may not have described it well myself (for that, you have my apologies – I’d recommend looking up a better description of the plot online, or even watching the movie yourself, if you’re interested/willing to be faced with serious subjects), these students experienced just how easy it was for people to come under the thrall of Hitler and the Nazis, inspired by the teacher’s charismatic presentation, and attracted by the appeal of this new prospective social group (a boy who was formerly a school outcast can rise become one of the leaders of The Wave) where none are excluded (assuming they fully accept the rules of the group, of course, that is, and don’t dare to question anything), where all are equal and none are alone. These students learned just how easy it was to be drawn into something without thinking and, for any who felt doubt, just how difficult to voice dissent against everyone else.
These students learned that maybe, just maybe, it just might not be so impossible for something like the Holocaust to happen again.
If you were in that group of kids, that history classroom, that school, would you be one of the rare kids who objected, who recognized what was happening and dared to speak out against it at risk of being ostracized (or, perhaps worse), or would you be one of the ones who passionately dedicated yourself to the new “movement” without a doubt, or one of the ones who did have qualms but sat by and said nothing because they would have had to dissent with all their peers… and with the teacher, the one in a real position of authority.
Much as I’d like to be able to believe that I could never take part in something like that, that I’d never allow myself to be drawn into it, that I’d take a stand, it’s difficult for me to know that that’s really the case. Am I really so different from that whole school of kids, so much better than them? Are you?
Are we really so different than all the non-Nazi Germans, the regular people who happened to live in Germany at the time of World War II?
It’s not something anyone wants to think about. It’s not something I like thinking about, for that matter. Why would it be? It’s such a disturbing thought, and it’s so much more comforting, so much more reassuring, to tell ourselves that things have changed, that it couldn’t happen nowadays. We’ve come so far since those days.
Yet, still, we have prejudice, we have bigotry, we have killings, we have discrimination against people and groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and more. Still, we feel immense pressure from peers and authority figures on our opinions, our values, are actions, are lives. Still, perhaps more often than not, we wait for someone else to say something first when we have doubts that go against those of the overwhelming group. We tell ourselves it’s not that bad, it’s not really our business, it’s not our problem, there’s nothing we can do, it won’t hurt anyone, it won’t hurt us… anything.
Did the Germans say the same thing, as over six million Jews and others were slaughtered?
I’m not saying we’re about to have another Holocaust. I sincerely hope nothing even remotely along those lines ever happens again in my time, or at any point in the future. Hopefully, we have learned our lesson from what came before. Hopefully, we really have come farther, and it could not happen again. Hopefully. But if we tell ourselves that there is no chance of it, that we don’t need to worry, that the world is totally better now… well, then, perhaps we’re leaving ourselves more vulnerable than ever to a new version of the Holocaust. Perhaps we’re leaving our doors wide open.
Perhaps, perhaps not. Time will tell. It’s hard to say for sure.
So, today, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us remember the millions of victims of the Nazis. Let us honor their memory. But, as we remember the past, let us not forget the present and the future. Let us not forget that we have a responsibility ourselves, and that if we do not hold to that responsibility, we are no better than those who came before us; those who were not evil, were not cruel, but were just people, human as the rest of us. Let us not fall into a sense of false invulnerability and perfection.
Let us remember.