Lessons from the Past: More Relevant than Ever

My final semester of college, I had the incredible privilege of taking a class called Holocaust and Theology, which was highly recommended to me by numerous classmates and friends who had already taken it. Little did I know it at the time, but that class changed my life. By learning deeply about the events leading up to the Holocaust, how such atrocities could possibly have happened, how ordinary people stood by or even participated in the evil, and why some people resisted–and how they did so–I found myself critically examining how I approached my life and what I needed to do going forward.

I do remember pondering these things deeply at the time. I can’t count the number of times I asked myself, “Would I have resisted, if I were alive during the Holocaust? Or would I have been a bystander [like most people were]?” I believe that my knowledge of how statistically likely the latter was, was what motivated me to try to prove it wrong.

The following excerpts come directly from my final paper in May of 2010 and include my takeaways from this class. I had NO IDEA how unbelievably relevant all of this would be less than 10 years later.

I became increasingly active in social justice causes after college, as a direct result of seeing the importance of speaking out against moral evil even if others are not. My level of activism intensified in 2016 and has only grown since. I am certainly far from perfect and have made plenty of less-than-ethical decisions/actions in my life, but I am confident that I have made many more ethical decisions, and done so more strongly, for having experienced this class and all the moral reckoning it forced me to do. I can say with a fair amount of confidence at this point that (given who I am today), I would be a resister and not a bystander if we entered another Holocaust.

Unfortunately, reality is getting far closer to that than I would have ever imagined (though, to be clear, I am not saying we are IN a Holocaust, although Nazism is very real today). Every time I hear of a new example of corruption, or the newest instance of government-sanctioned evil, my mind goes back to this class–and often specifically to this paper in which I wrote about how easily people can be lulled into complicity with evil unless they actively take the moral stance and take care of their neighbors EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Otherwise, we find ourselves on a fast and slippery slope from neutrality to incredible harm. The most recent attacks on Americans’ right to vote and the functioning of the U.S. Postal Service terrify me; I can’t not see echoes of Germany’s slow progression into Nazi authoritarianism in which people gradually gave up more and more rights until it was a totalitarian state.

So, without further ado, let’s step back in time to 22-year-old me writing about the 1940s ten years ago… (I skipped sections of the paper, so I’ve put a line between each part that I included.)

grainy black-and-white photograph of

Group of Jewish children who were sheltered in the children’s home Maison des Roches, which was directed by Daniel Trocme (back, center, with glasses). Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, between 1941 and 1943. [Photo and caption from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]

By studying the Holocaust—examining the actions and motivations of those who contributed to or opposed the actions of the Nazis—we can learn much about the human condition. The crimes committed under Nazi jurisdiction are almost universally recognized as morally wrong. However, millions of ordinary people either committed these crimes or witnessed them without protest, presumably lacking any moral reservations about their actions. Our task as people living in a post-Holocaust world is to learn from what happened during the Holocaust so that we can identify specific danger signs to avoid in the future. Of the many moral lessons one could draw from the Holocaust, we will be focusing on two for now. The first is to avoid at all costs the kind of mentality that groups people into categories without recognizing them as individuals. The second is to extend our sphere of responsibility beyond ourselves—to care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves, even when doing so involves considerable risk.

Part of the reason so many people were willing to commit atrocities against the Jews and other victims during the Holocaust lay in their deluded perception of their victims. In addition to the longstanding anti-Judaism present across Europe for centuries, Germans had been exposed to Nazi propaganda for years before the violence of the Holocaust started. Hitler and other Nazi officials worked hard to make the German people believe that Aryans were inherently superior to all other races, particularly Jews. Not only that, but the Nazis blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s many problems, making them out to be the embodiment of evil.[1] By the time the Nazis enacted laws to define “Jewishness” as a race and severely restrict the rights of people found to be Jewish, very few Germans were at all inclined to object. To them, Jews were not only non-Aryan outsiders, but they were a dangerous enemy. With Jews’ enemy status already established, it was a small leap to outright hostility, which is exactly what happened for some Germans. Despite the fact that their “guilt” was the invention of a deluded ideology, Jews were arrested and deported en masse, their property then seized by the German state.[2] The Nazi propaganda had achieved its goal: German citizens ignored the plight of their former neighbors and let the Jews be taken without protest.

The prejudices that the Nazis held against the Jews, Roma, Slavs, and their other victims were so extreme that in many cases the victims were seen as less than human. Having lost their rights as humans, they were subjected to all manner of brutalities at the hands of the Nazis. The perpetrators no longer had any moral inhibitions to restrain them from unleashing untold violence upon these people, because to them, their victims were not people at all.[3] In extreme cases, Eastern European Jews were viewed as no more than “beasts.” For instance, many German soldiers willingly participated in the massacres of whole villages on the Eastern Front, seeing their unsuspecting victims—including the women and children—as savage beasts.[4] Granted, not all prejudiced judgments produce total dehumanization, but the principle is the same even in less extreme cases. Bohdan Wytwycky argues that victims of any sort of group prejudice “are forced to travel the first leg of the journey to subhuman status,” saying that it is a “slippery slope to total dehumanization.”[5] Indeed, if one defines a person solely based on presumed membership in a group, that person is no longer seen as an individual. Now just a number or a category, the person becomes easy to ignore or mistreat. He or she has gone from being an individual human being to being an abstract category, neither particularly real nor particularly human. This is not to say that one’s status as an individual is essential to one’s humanity. It is, however, invaluable in other people’s recognition of that humanity. As humans, we relate best to one another on an individual-to-individual level, and it is easiest for us to see the humanity in another person if we know or recognize that person as an individual with whom we would be able to converse and relate.

[1] David Redles, Hitler’s Millenial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 71.

[2] Peter J. Haas, Morality After Auschwitz: The Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 68-69.

[3] Bohdan Wytwycky, The Other Holocaust: Many Circles of Hell (Washington, D.C.: The Novak Report, 1980), 82.

[4] Redles, 174-177.

[5] Wytwycky, 83.

A second factor in the extensiveness of violence during the Holocaust was the widespread lack of resistance toward Nazi policies on the part of bystanders far and near. Although a few groups and individuals stood up against the Nazis and tried to defend Holocaust victims, the majority did not. It took some time for the full extent of Nazi brutality to become publicly known; however, even afterwards, people neglected to protest. Three possible factors could explain this behavior: these people believed the Nazis’ actions to be morally justified, they decided that the victims’ troubles were neither their business nor responsibility, or they were hesitant to act due to their fear of Nazi retaliation.

Even if some of these bystanders were so steeped in Nazi ideology that they thought the Final Solution was morally right, large numbers of people remained unconvinced. For instance, many Nazi soldiers had serious doubts about their mission, feeling disgusted with themselves for participating in mass murder.[1] Yet, this disgust did not stop them from continuing to participate. Whether they were motivated by indifference toward the victims or fear of punishment, the fact remains that they furthered the Nazi cause rather than opposing it. Even observers who did not actively participate in the violence had plenty of opportunities to speak out against what the Nazis were doing. A striking example of this is German churches. Both the Confessing Church and the German Catholic Church allowed Nazis to persecute, deport, and even kill non-Aryan members of their churches.[2] The Confessing Church, which did speak out to maintain its independence from the Nazis, never organized any sort of mass protest on behalf of the people it knew were being treated viciously in Nazi camps.[3]

What these bystanders were doing was choosing to ignore the fact that fellow human beings were in dire need of help. They shunned their responsibility to help those people by being solely concerned with their own welfare. After all, one incurred significant risk by standing up to a Fascist government, especially one as aggressive as that of Nazi Germany. Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed by the Nazis for writing and distributing articles against the Nazi Party.[4] Thus, many people chose to stay silent for the sake of self-preservation. Although self-preservation certainly has some ethical merit, it should not be employed to the exclusion of aiding others. What happens when someone else has absolutely no means by which to help him- or herself? This was the case for millions of people during the Holocaust, and few observers gave them any aid. The efforts of many Western European countries under Nazi occupation to protect their Jewish refugees stopped abruptly when the countries realized that resistance to Nazi policy incurred dangerous risk to themselves.[5] Therefore, millions perished.

On the other hand, the people and groups who did choose to take action against the Nazis were sometimes remarkably successful. The solidarity of the people of Denmark is a striking example. Despite the Nazis’ occupation of the country and intention to deport all Danish Jews, only about 480 of Denmark’s 6,500 Jews were deported, and only 51 of them died. This was made possible by the Danish people’s commitment to protect their fellow citizens even in the face of serious risk. They created an underground network to warn and shelter Jews from being arrested, aided them in their escape to Sweden, and continually asked the Nazis about the status of those Jews who had already been taken.[6] By standing up for their belief that Danish Jews were just as deserving of human rights as the rest of the Danish population, these people managed to almost completely avert the disaster of mass deportation.

While not every situation is the same—some are much more conducive to successful resistance than others—very seldom does a situation arise in which there is absolutely no possibility of doing something to help those in need. It is much easier to feign impotence than to make the effort not only to think of a way to help but also to carry it out. However, one of the major lessons the Holocaust teaches us is that someone has to act, even when the action is difficult or involves risk. When the victims themselves are incapable, someone else needs to step up. As intimidating as it would be to take the risk of opposing Nazi policy, the fact is that an action like that could actually make a difference and save people’s lives. The Danish are just one example. Many other individuals and groups acted out in both large and small ways to hinder impede the Nazis, and their impact cannot be denied. Even though the number of resisters was a great deal smaller than the number of passive bystanders, these resisters saved lives. If all of the bystanders had joined them, their impact would have increased dramatically.

[1] Haas, 86-87.

[2] Shelley Baranowski, “The Confessing Church and Antisemitism: Protestant Identity, German Nationhood, and the Exclusion of Jews,” in Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 101-103; Guenter Lewy, “Pius XII, the Jews, and the German Catholic Church,” in Betrayal, 134.

[3] Baranowski, 108.

[4] The White Rose, VHS, directed by Michael Verhoeven (Germany, 1982).

[5] Haas, 93-98.

[6] Haas, 92-93.

As one might expect, the various factors in bringing about the Holocaust are deeply intertwined. On the one hand, broad categorizations and preconceptions about people helped to dehumanize them into victims no one cared about. On the other hand, the natural desire to preserve one’s own well-being stopped many people from protesting actions that they believed were wrong. Both of these factors worked together to increase the effect of the other. As humans, we are more likely to see others as less worthy than we are; our self-centered perspectives hamper our abilities to consider fully the perspectives of others. We can feel comfortable making generalizations about others, because the only situation we have fully examined is our own. We simply do not realize how far from the truth our generalizations can be. Our ability to shallowly categorize people into non-human abstractions gives us a means by which to validate our self-centeredness. We can justify being self-centered because, to us, those other people are not real people anyway.

If this is the state of humanity, we obviously have a problem. There is no easy solution. What we can do, though, is make every effort to fight the tendencies we have that lead to such harm. First, we must avoid overgeneralizations and all forms of prejudice. With that, we must also be careful to look for the humanity in others, even if we do not know them well or are physically far from them. By doing this, we are doing our best to let our own moral convictions do their work. We are looking at reality as it is rather than distorting it to appease our consciences. Second, we must let our concern reach beyond ourselves—even beyond our immediate neighbors. Instead of being passive bystanders, we need to stand together as human beings and help one another when in need. We must keep in mind that the risk we take in doing so is outweighed by the potential reward we have in making a difference.

In spite of the many horrors of the Holocaust, some aspects of it can still give us hope. By learning about the wide variety of ways in which people resisted, we can see that human beings are capable of incredible good as well as terrifying evil. The various stories of Holocaust resisters provide us with a complex array of factors that work together to produce morally upright individuals. We can see in these stories that those who resisted the Nazis during the Holocaust were ardently committed to their sense of right and wrong. Their moral values did not cohere with those of their neighbors. Likewise, they alone, of their neighbors, acted out to stop the atrocities of the Nazi genocide.

One moral conviction that, above all others, unites Holocaust resisters is their belief that they have the ethical responsibility to help other human beings who are in need. Of the many rescuers interviewed by Nechama Tec, the vast majority had trouble expressing their reasons for having helped to shelter and save Jews. For these men and women, helping Jews was a “natural duty”; the Jews were people in dire need of help, so the rescuers helped them.[1] For many rescuers, there simply was no alternative. Their moral sense of responsibility was so strong that their rescue actions were almost automatic. Polish rescuer Jan Elewski explained it this way: “After all one had to be at peace with oneself.” The call of his conscience to help those he saw being persecuted was too strong for him to resist, even though it required him to put his own life in danger. [2] Along the same vein, residents of Le Chambon, France, who helped to shelter thousands of Jews during the war, explained that their rescue efforts flowed naturally out of individual consciences. Villagers saw Jews in need of help, so they helped.[3]

This same sentiment is echoed by rescuers of all walks of life, regardless of their social standing, religion, or political affiliation. Their need to offer aid to people in need goes beyond who the needy are. Over and over again, rescuers explain that their help to the Jews had nothing to do with their charges’ Jewishness. Neither did it have to do with the closeness of the relationship between rescuer and Jewish refugee. In fact, the majority of Jews sheltered by European rescuers were strangers, rather than close friends, of their rescuers.[4] In one particularly noteworthy case, a woman sheltered for two and a half years a Jewish woman whom she strongly disliked. Although she wished that her efforts could have been on behalf of a more “worthy” subject, the woman continued to provide food and shelter for this woman out of her moral conviction that she had to do what she could to help this otherwise helpless individual.[5]

[1] Nachama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 153.

[2] Tec, 161.

[3] Weapons of the Spirit, DVD, directed by Pierre Sauvage (USA: 1989).

[4] Tec, 178.

[5] Tec, 179-180.

Resisters and rescuers during the Holocaust did not waver in their moral conviction to help people in need, whether or not they had personal interaction with those needy persons on whose behalf they were working. This fact has two significant implications for us living in the post-Holocaust world. First, it gives us a concrete moral value that has the potential to bring about the morally upright actions in extreme situations. Since we now have the advantage of hindsight when we examine the Holocaust, it is easy to see that what the rescuers did was morally the right thing to do. During the Holocaust, it was far less obvious to those who witnessed it what their best course of action was. Rescuers and resisters were the few who managed to choose the right action when that action was still possible. For this reason, their shared commitment to helping those in need is something we ought to emulate. That way, when we find ourselves in morally murky situations, we will have this principle of aiding the needy to guide us to the right decisions.

Even if none of us ever faces the same level of peril as the Holocaust rescuers did when they had to decide whether or not to risk their lives to save people from the Nazis, we all will most certainly have to make other decisions in which the same principle is at work. This principle, in its basic form, is that human beings who are in dire need for no fault of their own ought to be the first priority of all human beings. In other words, no human deserves to suffer when other people are available to offer aid. Those who become aware of other human beings who are suffering are morally responsible to act on their behalf. In this system, for instance, a person who witnesses or otherwise knows about bullying is obligated to try to rescue the bully’s victim. The person could attempt one of many ways of doing this—such as confronting the bully directly, hiding the victim, or enlisting the help of an authority who can put the bullying to an end. The specific tactic used to help does not matter; what matters is that the witness must not choose to ignore the plight of the victim. Whatever his or her reasons might be for not acting, the moral duty to help those in need takes precedence. The witness’s action may mean sacrificing his or her time, money, job, reputation, or personal safety, but those things no longer matter in the face of what ought to be done. Although it can be very tempting to ignore people’s needs by assuming someone else will help them, the problem is that when everyone thinks that way, no one acts. Rather than walk away and risk that the person will never be helped, one must recognize one’s moral responsibility and act upon it.

In the context of the post-Holocaust world, one of the most important things to consider is how one’s actions today affect one’s moral character in future situations. Holocaust rescuers had no idea that they would ever end up making such life-or-death decisions as they did, but when those situations came along, their previously established moral convictions brought about the right choices. One of the key characteristics Tec notes in her interviews with rescuers is an “enduring, strong commitment to help the needy that began before the war and that included a wide range of activities.”[1]  It was precisely these small acts of kindness and aid, seemingly insignificant at the time, which produced the kinds of people who were morally prepared to perform great acts of rescue when the need arose. The fact that these future rescuers were willing to make others’ needs a priority when it cost them just their time and money put them so much into a habit of helping that they naturally continued to offer aid even when the price was much higher.

Beginning in everyday situations and culminating in the dangerous circumstances of the Holocaust, rescuers were motivated by their conviction that people in need must be helped. They felt a responsibility, as fellow human beings, to participate in that giving of aid. Their efforts to help, both great and small, were able to actually save lives. When we happen upon opportunities to help here and now, this fact ought to motivate us not to be passive. If we start helping others now, whether the act is small or great, we will be conditioning ourselves to become morally upright human beings. The best way to ensure that, if faced with another Holocaust, we would become rescuers rather than bystanders is to begin a lifestyle of service today. This way, we—like the Holocaust rescuers—will know what the right action is, and we will have had practice taking the right steps.

The second important implication of Holocaust rescuers’ moral conviction is that it shows the incredible level of commitment human beings are capable of having toward their moral values. We who live today ought to hone our own moral beliefs so that we, like Holocaust rescuers, can withstand even the most extreme outside pressures to abandon our morals. Holding the belief that humans ought to help their fellow human beings in need is not enough if it cannot bring about that helping action when the opportunity arises. By examining the thought processes of Holocaust rescuers, though, we can start to see what makes such unflinching moral conviction possible.

Drawing on the observations of other researchers including Perry London, Tec notes that almost all Holocaust rescuers maintained a sense of individuality atypical of their peers.[2] As just one example, the Polish peasant Olena had always been mocked by the rest of her village for being poor and unmarried. During the Holocaust, Olena risked her life to save a Jewish girl from the Nazis. She felt no loyalty to the rest of her village and was not fazed when no one else supported her actions.[3] Individuality, or separateness from the local community, was manifest in different ways in different people, but the correlation between individuality and willingness to oppose the current government is striking. Because they were already used to standing out from the crowds in one way or another, the societal pressure to follow along with current public opinion was not enough to change their minds about how they should act.

One of the other ways people developed this separateness from the society around them was by thinking for themselves rather than always following the crowds. For example, the governess and rescuer Ada Celka seemed by almost all standards quite average. Yet, her remarkable intelligence and firmly held principles set her apart.[4] Moral values that one has carefully thought out are more difficult to drop than values one has heard and gleaned from one’s neighbors. Instead of simply accepting someone else’s opinion as the truth about morality, these rescuers had their own ideas of what was morally right. Because they did not receive their values passively from someone else, they had to determine for themselves what they believed about morality. The very process of thinking about these issues has the effect of strengthening the thinker’s commitment to the values he or she decides are best. Once the thinker arrives at a conclusion about them, he or she has reasons behind choosing those particular values over any others and is far less likely to give them up blindly in favor of someone else’s recommendation.

Besides its effect of growing one’s level of moral conviction, thinking through one’s values also has the advantage of being more open to constructive criticism. A person whose moral values always reflect public opinion passively accepts these opinions as truth without either fully understanding them or looking for alternatives. When a person only sees one side of an issue, it is easy to be deceived into thinking that side is right, even if the other side has many strong points. If, however, one takes the time and effort to consider alternative perspectives, one is much less likely to have been fooled into believing a one-sided argument. One will have found those strong points on the other perspective and can weigh the two sides fairly. If more people had done this type of moral reflection before and during the Holocaust, the Nazi ethic[5] as described by Haas would not have been able to convince nearly as many people. More individuals would have realized that an ethical system that justifies the extermination of an entire population is not morally right. As it happened, though, the majority of Europeans accepted this ethic without fully considering its implications. Their initial lack of mental effort in deciding their own moral values was later matched by their complacency during the Nazis’ murders of millions of people.

In order to avoid making the same mistakes that so many Holocaust bystanders and collaborators made, we must work to develop our own moral convictions. We must carefully examine our own currently held moral values, including how those values would hold up in the types of extreme situations faced by Holocaust rescuers. The rescuers’ moral imperative of helping those in need provides another idea to consider. If our goal is to become morally upright human beings who would not let a Holocaust happen again, our most promising choice is to act like the rescuers and put the needs of others who are suffering above our own needs. As difficult as this can be to live out in practice, it can also be worked toward through small steps. We must continually strive to help other people in large and small ways, conditioning ourselves to claim the Holocaust rescuers’ moral conviction as our own.

[1] Tec, 154.

[2] Tec, 154, 159.

[3] Tec, 155.

[4] Tec, 158.

[5] Haas, 2.

About carissalick

EL teacher, Christian, activist, learner, wife, mom
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