t the behest of the German government, more than six million Jews were systematically exterminated, in addition to at least four million additional "undesirables," including Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russians, criminals, the mentally challenged, etc.
Consider the plight of European Jews. They were not expelled from society, forced to change their religion or given an injection to speed their way into a painless death. Deemed an “inferior race,” they were exterminated, like annoying insects. They were gassed to death, because that was the most efficient way to dispose of six million men, women and children – who happened to be Jewish. For centuries, these Jews had been good German citizens and neighbors, fighting and dying in Germany's wars and contributing to Germany's artistic, scientific and business success. By 1938, they had become vermin, to be exterminated.
Jews in German-controlled lands were ousted from their schools, jobs and homes, and forced to live in squalid ghettos. Their homes, money and possessions were looted by the German government and local citizens. The captured Jews were transported to concentration camps, where they were often forced to work as slave laborers. Finally, they were transported to death camps, where they were gassed to death or shot and their bodies cremated.
We know this to be true, not simply from the anecdotal recollection of survivors and eyewitnesses, but from captured German documents. The German government carefully recorded the name of each Jew, in each concentration camp, on their inevitable road to premature death. Jews were rounded up by the Nazi's civilian thugs, better known as Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen were groups of local criminals and gangsters, who uncovered Jewish men, women and children, capturing them for the SS. Sometimes, they were told to shoot the Jews and bury them in trenches. One such location of the mass murder of Jews was a place called Babi Yar, not far from my mother's birthplace, in the Ukraine.
Women, the elderly, the sick, the frail and children were often the first into the gas chambers. Men and hardy women were kept barely alive for their value as slave laborers. As long as they remained strong enough to work, they were employed as laborers for the benefit of the military and German industrialists. Some of those German companies exist today. When there was no more work, or the victims became ill or weak, they were shot or gassed to death.
My mother experienced anti-Semitism as a child in Russia. Cossacks and local citizens persecuted Jews in the towns and villages of the Ukraine. My mother and her sisters survived by leaving Europe and immigrating to America before the Holocaust. However, almost two entire generations of her family died in the Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
I hold this genocide close to my heart. It is a cumbersome stone attached to my soul, a burden of remarkable proportions. It is why I created a book called, Jacob’s Courage. Through the words of "Jacob's Courage" my ancestors cry out for justice. This terrible story cannot be told without revealing the brutality and indignity of the Holocaust in every detail. It is a terrible and yet at times beautiful story, filled with heroes and villains, love and laughter, horror, tragedy and survival.
The genocide of six million innocent people must be told and remembered. If not, there would be nothing to prevent more genocide, and then more after that. We cannot allow our progeny to embrace the worst characteristics of human nature. This tragedy must be indelibly imprinted upon our children and they must pass it along to their progeny. The only way to eliminate hatred and instill tolerance is through thoughtful and well-planned education.
This does not demean the importance of other Holocausts. The Armenian genocide was no less tragic, only smaller in scope. Those innocent people who were murdered in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur were just as blameless. All genocides create important questions. Why would German citizens allow their neighbors to be annihilated? How much did they know about death camps and when? Why didn’t they try to prevent it? How deeply-rooted was anti-Semitism?
How can we learn to value the differences among us, rather than fear them? When will we stop ostracizing people because of their religion, race, gender, orientation or ethnic heritage? In the 21st century, we must become better than that. We must acquire tolerance and compassion, rather than teach our children to continue to fear, abhor and hate people who are different.
I appreciate books that offer a frank, emotional examination of morality. Humans are not good or bad, but good and bad. We surround ourselves with romance and comedy, playing to the healthier parts of our emotional identity. Yet, repugnance, despair and obscurity exist within human nature. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine that dark side of our psyche. If any benefit can come from the Holocaust it is that we can examine the furthermost extent of human depravity. We can measure its immorality, degeneracy and malevolence.
Yet, humans are complex beings. There is a great deal more to our nature than the ubiquitous battleground of virtue versus evil. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both. We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring, kind and iniquitous; we love and we despise.
Deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were vastly critical decisions about ethical behavior, revealing our concept of morality. Unlike animals, humans are governed by principles, ethical beliefs and veracity. We are not clouded by delusions of integrity, but governed by them. To understand human behavior, we must explore the human response to terror, as well as the alluring beauty of passionate love and the driving power of religious devotion. After all, we are profoundly influenced by each of these passions.
Our lives are complex - even within the garish trap of the Holocaust. Not all Jews were innocent victims. Not all Germans were rabid anti-Semites, bent upon the destruction of the Jewish "race." Some Jews were themselves evil and became concentration camp "kapos." Some gentiles were compassionate and rescued many Jews.
In reality, the world is seldom seen in black and white, or shades of gray - especially during the Holocaust. In the midst of terrible anguish, beauty existed. Within beauty, despair can exist. And, while many Jews in the abyss of the Holocaust worshipped God, some condemned God. While it might be easy to claim that God works in mysterious ways, how is one to focus on religious constructs when the veneer of all that is good in life has been stripped away? How does one continue to love a God who allows the murder of every loved one, who allows us to be starved, beaten, tortured, denigrated, disfigured and emotionally destroyed? Perhaps this was the ultimate test of faith.
Holocaust survivors lost everything, but perhaps somehow gained something as well. Certainly an honest examination of the Holocaust must reveal torturous brutality, starvation, sickness and death. Most Holocaust survivors lost all of their loved ones. The facade of life’s beauty had been stripped away, revealing an incomprehensible abyss of revulsion.
Yet here, in the bowels of terror, the Jews of the Holocaust hit a wall and continued to run. Despite the onslaught of lasting evil, in the face of certain death, Jewish victims of the Holocaust fabricated a make-believe world for their children. Deep within the horrid transit concentration camps of Nazi Germany, such as Theresienstadt, the Jews of Europe continued to practice their religion, to teach their children and to love one another. Lovers married, amidst the shadows of death and the stench of decay. This is where the Jews of Europe, condemned to certain death, continued their everlasting worship of God in the manner of their ancestors for countless centuries. Here, waiting to be sent to the gas chambers and crematoria, one can feel hope for the survival of the human spirit. These singular moments rise like a fabulous phoenix, from the ashes of annihilation.
Those poor souls trapped within the terror of the Holocaust were faced with the most perfidious forces. Deceit, brutality, cruelty, sickness, starvation and the death of loved-ones were the daily companions of Holocaust victims. Yet, in the midst of utter despair, there was life, love, passion, desire, religious fervor and the excitement known only to children. Even in such hopeless desolation, there was love of God, infatuation, romance and longing for all of the things that humans crave. Jews fabricated their ethnicity within the drumbeat of the slow, steady march to the Nazi gas chambers. They refused to allow the fabric of Jewish society be torn by relocation, forced labor, starvation, sickness and the endless threat of demise. They created schools, orchestras, athletic events, synagogue and prayer, weddings and funerals, dances and theatre, study groups and debates; to every hellhole the Jews were sent; they took their values and their faith with them. Rather than give in to the Nazis, Jews trapped within ghettos and concentration camps courageously re-created their culture and religion. Some of the most ardent examples of constructive human nature can be found in these terrifying Holocaust moments.
Hidden from the SS, concentration camp Jews observed the covenants and rituals of Judaism. They prayed on the Sabbath and during the major holidays, celebrated marriage ceremonies, arranged burials and even ritual circumcisions. Along the dark, terrifying, relentless path to the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews lived, loved, learned and died, behaving as though their lives would continue unabated. In their darkest moments, concentration camp Jews fabricated a “normal” life for their progeny. Despite their impending mortality, they created an ordinary world on the inside to protect children from the raging genocide on the outside. Such was the nature of their love, faith and devotion. Indeed, this worship transcended parental affection. Into the gas chambers and crematoria, the Jews of the Holocaust emptied their faith and continued to worship the God of their ancestors.
The human spirit strives for autonomy and freedom. Yet, to understand human nature, one must descend into the depths of depravity and terror. We cannot appreciate humanity without comprehending its wicked flaws. Deep within the darkest recesses of brutal genocide, we discover a faint flicker of light representing love, passion, desire, hope, worship and reverence. Here is the essence of humanity, in the midst of the dark whirlwind of malevolence – a flicker of light representing morality, faith, love, compassion and righteousness.
This is why we must always tell stories of the Holocaust. Such narratives represent the very worst of human vilification and the very best of compassion. Holocaust stories teach us how to recognize the worst examples of humanity, but also how to be a righteous person. The terror of genocide is not necessarily an inevitable human outcome. We must learn from the mistakes of our past, rather than repeat them. As long as we teach our children about the Holocaust, there is hope that it will never happen again. In the words of writer and philosopher George Santayana, "Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, “Jacob's Courage”