Trying to comprehend the incomprehensible
Why did they do it? Can we find a reason for the madness that was the Holocaust?
Was it because they wanted the Jews’ businesses? This economic motive is often cited for the pogroms of the Middle Ages, when Crusaders were joined by local inhabitants of Rhineland towns. They blamed the Jews for their onerous taxes and wanted their debts wiped out – just kill the Jewish moneylenders, burn the records, and clear the deck.
So, too, in the 20th century when seeking a motive for the Holocaust, we look at the economic benefit when Jewish businesses were taken over by “Aryan” owners.
Why did they do it? They believed Jews had killed Christ and were still using the blood of Christian children for their Passover rituals. So was their motive religious? Jews merited death in payment for the slaughter of the son of God?
Or maybe they did it because they believed the Jews were responsible for World War I and had profited from Germany’s defeat and humiliation – an almost psychological explanation for the murder of millions.
Maybe the lawyers, professors and symphony conductors agreed to look the other way because Jews stood in their path for advancement. Just agree to legislation that, in the stroke of a pen, deprived all those Jewish professors, lawyers, judges, doctors, etc., of their jobs. Motive? Professional jealousy.
Why did they do it? Why did neighbours who had lived alongside ordinary Jewish families for centuries suddenly turn them over to the Gestapo? Was it for money? For food? For their own protection from the madness and bloodlust that gripped Europe from 1933 to 1945?
Was Anne Frank such an enemy of the people? And what reward did her betrayers reap? Was it enough?
Why did the soldiers do it? Why did they willingly, sometimes even joyously, herd the Jews of Yaltushkiev (my father-in-law’s village) and thousands of other shtetls into the forest, strip them, and then shoot them and dump their bodies in ravines like Baba Yar? Were they drunk? Or had they ceased to regard the people they murdered as human, and thus considered themselves as exterminators of vermin?
Was it, then, the super-nationalism and racism of the Nazi ideology that led such willing executioners to fantastic heights of depravity?
The guards at the camps – why did they do it? For their own perverse satisfaction? Because they were just following orders? To feed their families?
We may ask why did the Pope turn aside from the protection of Jews and denunciation of Nazi persecution? Why did he trade papal supremacy within the Catholic Church for the lives of millions? Since the reasons are still partially hidden, we cannot know (although the book Hitler’s Pope goes a long way toward explaining this).
As we approach another Yom Hashoah, have we solved the mystery that created the Kingdom of Night? Was the motive economic greed? Religious bigotry? Hunger for power? Fear for one’s own life? Sheer hatred of the other? The madness of one man infecting millions of others?
All of these things went into the creation of this unique 20th-century horror, a carefully crafted machine for murder that found the spark to set it off.
The one answer we know is false is that, for some metaphysical reason, we brought it on ourselves by our backsliding ways. This obscenity should forever be put to rest.
One of the many survivors who have spoken about their experiences was a woman who told her story to thousands of high school students in British Columbia. She travelled our province for years speaking to them about her life. I quote from her eulogy about her effect on the students who heard her.
“There is an incredible archive of… letters written by students who heard [her] speak… But there is also a vastly greater and even more important legacy, an invisible legacy of things not said and not done by the young people of our province and elsewhere – the racist remarks that were not made, the jokes that were not laughed at, the gangs that were not joined.”
Whatever the reasons for this great tragedy in the lives of our people, and of millions of others, the legacy of survivors’ personal stories remains as a testament of hope for a better tomorrow.