A couple of years back, our Starbucks friend Herman invited Carrie and me to attend a Holocaust memorial service at SCV’s Congregation Beth Shalom. This special event was shared in spirit with Jewish congregations around the world in remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust.
Congregation Beth Slalom’s service was particularly insightful in that Holocaust survivor Gitta Ginsberg told her personal story of having survived the Nazi purge by being taken into Catholic orphanages, first in Austria, then in Belgium. Gitta was fortunate and was never confined to an actual camp. Her parents, however, were forcibly taken away, yet the family was miraculously reunited after the war.
Gitta recalled how the kindness and foresight of an adoptive Austrian mother, then kindness of orphanage nuns, then courage of British and American soldiers – all combined, kept her alive, and ultimately kept her family intact. Crimes against humanity tore her family and an entire people apart, but in the end, human courage, kindness and spirit combined to bring us back from the brink. That lesson that modern society could stoop to such crimes against humanity, and the subsequent hard-won restoration of decency, stands as an eternal reminder to all nations.
The Holocaust service included quotes from Martin Niemoeller, a German pastor who also spent years in a concentration camp. He speaks of our need to remain ever vigilant against indifference and manipulation:
First they came for the Communists / And I did not speak out / Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists / And I did not speak out / Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists / And I did not speak out / Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews / And I did not speak out /
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me / But there was no one left / To speak out for me…
Our national leadership has whipped up excessive paranoia of immigrants. Forced separation of immigrant and asylum-seeking families from their children has been normalized. Even spouses of honorable U.S. military veterans are being deported with little fanfare or consideration. Families of veterans, torn apart without thoughtful reasoning. We are being made to be a callous people, more and more fearful of the “other.”
Hitler manipulated his population using fear as the key lever. Enemies of the people, both externally and internally, abounded in Hitler’s propagandized world. United in fear-motivated nationalism and cowered by fear itself, good-willed Germans who never would otherwise condone atrocities, first indifferently tolerated them — then vigorously committed them. Such is the power of the politics of fear and manipulation.
There are too many other examples of submission to politics and policies of mass-violence. Stalin managed between 10 million and 15 million murders before he was through. Chairman Mao is reputed to have cost the lives of 40-70 million Chinese from his purges and great leaps backward. Let’s not forget the slaughter the Spanish and Portuguese poured upon native South and Central Americans, nor should we forget America’s ethnic cleansing of our Native American peoples.
Our current national government is nowhere near the atrocities noted above. Yet, these things come and grow in degrees. We are more cruel, crass and dismissive than we were just two years ago. Humans are easily induced and manipulated toward mass violence and cruelty. We should recognize this to our core, yet in America, time and again, our religion, pride and patriotism get whipped up into distorted nationalism or religiosity that justifies and motivates the most atrocious of acts.
Indeed, just 15 years ago, waving flags from our SUVs, we pulverized Iraq, killing 100,000 civilians under the trumped-up premise of imminent Iraqi nuclear and chemical attacks on the American people. Blinded by what many consider administration-manipulated fear, most Americans bought stories of yellow cake and mobile weapons labs, all of which have since been repudiated and proven false. Critics were effectively silenced, as speaking against the war was then viewed as insulting and un-American. Today, many agree America was manipulated into a tragic, destructive war they wish we could take back.
Today, Kim Jong Un frightens the hell out of his people, propagandizing pending attacks by the U.S. and South Korea. Like Hitler and dictators before and since, Kim uses fear to coerce a consolidation of power. He and his family have left perhaps millions dead, and may affect the same to millions more. Americans look at North Korea with amazement as to how any people could be so controlled – let alone, how could it ever happen to us Americans, with our democracy and free press. How could it really ever happen?
For starters, the very president of the United States routinely labels the press “the enemy of the people.” How can we continue to suffer this current presidential onslaught on the pillars of American democracy and character?
So where does that leave us Americans? We recognize that even in a modern age of democracy we remain susceptible to manipulation and propaganda by the politically and economically powerful. These terrible things don’t just happen to “others” – they happen to “us.” This truth of our human susceptibility won’t change; we must remain vigilant to promote good while resisting injustice to all.
Martin Niemoeller concludes with these words:
What heritage did I receive from my parents? / What will I bequeath to my children? / What gifts have I received from my brothers, my sisters, my friends? / What can I give to others?
If I can make someone’s life better / I will not regret the past
If I can help someone grow / I will not fear the future.
Remembrance of the Holocaust and similar tragedies reminds us to eternally resist injustice and indifference. We must remain committed to building up – not tearing down.
We must insist on leadership that leads with dignity, compassion, respect for our democratic norms and finally regard for the weakest, not just strongest among us.
We are not there right now, and we must find our way back.
Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column, “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.