Tuesday, August 18, 2015


The day we moved to Europe, we planned a mental list of things that we needed to do someday. Near the top of that list, once the kids were old enough to appreciate what they were seeing, was to visit some of the important WWII sites. And Auschwitz was near the top of that list. Among the many things that young people should always be taught (and old people need continual reminding of) are the evils committed by various ideologies in the twentieth century.

Auschwitz is a powerful memorial. The camp stands preserved or reconstructed as it did in the days of the Nazis. The various bunk houses have been filled with exhibits displaying all aspects of the Holocaust and extermination program the Germans undertook there. The walls are “papered” with the photos of the prisoners taken in the first few years of the camps operation. (In the last couple of years they resorted to tattooing prisoners.) A whole bunker is devoted to the possessions of the prisoners; rooms piled high with shoes, glasses, combs, brushes. And one whole room is full of tons of human hair, hair that had not been sent off to the German textile industry at the time of the camp’s capture.

Understandably, the site has an air of a mausoleum. Solemn, respectful reflection is the rule of the day. And, it is easy to mourn the loss. To judge the evil and the evil men that committed the terrible acts. To praise the heroic efforts that ended the Holocaust and stopped the advance of those racists.

What may not come readily to mind is that the camp serves most importantly as a warning. And this is why the events of 1939-1945 need to be taught and retaught to every new generation. We are all ultimately capable of such evil. Of course not many people would wake up tomorrow and undertake the next genocide. But the gradual potential is there. And I see the seeds of it nearly every day across Europe or the United States. Some days it is more prevalent than others.

At the moment, we live in a particularly precarious time.

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