Today, from sundown of last evening to sundown tonight, Israel and many Jewish communities around the world commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). The day commemorates the 6 million Jews murdered by what was, at the time, the most technologically advanced and intellectual country on earth. The victims were people like me, living a life very similar to what mine would have been at the time. More sobering, the perpetrators were also people like me, living lives very similar to mine. They were educated and cultured, and yet evil still took hold in their hearts and built truly horrific factories of death at places that now will be forever tainted by the evil done there. It’s hard to say the place names, “Auchwitz”, “Treblinka”, or “Sobibor”, without thinking about what happened there.
I say this, because one of the scary things I find in myself is that I am able to imagine such evil is an “other people” kind of thing. Yet, a culture can turn, and make horrible things seem right (or at least not so wrong you have to stand against it), and few of us have the moral grounding and fortitude to stand against our own community if it corrupts itself. I don’t know if I do. Indeed, I find within myself a willingness to be corrupted, and I worry that many may be like me, and flattering ourselves that if such things happened here, they would stand against it. As Jesus (himself a Jew) says to the religious and morally self-righteous of his time, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”. (Mt 23:29-30)
The Holocaust reminds us that evil is not merely grotesque, it can be subtle, seductive, and even banal. People, even people we think of as decent, can become convinced of horrible ideas that lead to horrible acts. The prophet Jeremiah, in telling us to trust in the Lord reminds us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Honestly, it’s hard to say much about the events themselves, without minimizing what happened (I may have said too much already). As with most events of truly staggering evil, it is best to simply let those affected speak, and the rest of us listen. This is the survivor story of John Freund, chosen from The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, largely at random: