It was 76 years ago today, as Germany collapsed before the combined forces of Russia on the east and the Allies on the west and south, that Soviet troops entered and liberated the complex of death camps now known as Auschwitz. There, roughly 1.1-million Jews were systematically murdered in service of the “Final Solution” — the Third Reich’s mad plan to exterminate Jewry.
Other camps were liberated by advancing Allied troops and, as the stories and photos trickled out and the world recoiled in horror, the Allied governments denied knowledge of the camps.
That was a lie. The American writer Thomas Wolfe, who loved Germany, wrote this in the mid-1930s in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again:
After a while, however, in the midwatches of the night, behind thick walls and bolted doors and shuttered windows, it came to me full flood at last in confession sof unutterable despair. I don’t know why it was that people so unburdened themselves to me, a stranger, unless it was because they knew the love I bore them and their land. They seemed to feel a desperate need to talk to someone who would understand. The thing was pent up in them, and my sympathy for all things German had burst the dam of their reserve and caution. Their tales of woe and fear unspeakable gushed forth and beat upon my ears. They told me stories of their friends and relatives who had said unguarded things in public and disappeared without a trace, stories of the Gestapo, stories of neighbors’ quarrels and petty personal spite turned into political persecution, stories of concentration camps and pogroms, stories of rich Jews stripped and beaten and robbed of everything they had then denied the right to earn a pauper’s wage, stories of well-bred Jewesses despoiled and turned out of heir homes and forced to kneel and scrub off anti-Nazi slogans scribbled on the sidewalks while young barbarians dressed like soldiers formed a ring and prodded them with bayonets and made the quiet places echo with the shameless laughter of their mockery. It was a picture of the Dark Ages come again — shocking beyond belief, but true as the hell that man forever creates for himself.
It isn’t believable that a novelist on the fringe of polite society knew, but the officials of foreign governments stationed in Germany never caught a whiff.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel reached the same conclusion. From his Nobel acceptance speech:
I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?
And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
The Allied governments have finally acknowledged that they knew of the death camps, and claim that they were quiet because public outrage would have demanded immediate military action with a corresponding disruption of the military strategy.
Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t; I can’t judge. I admit that, when I look at how widespread and commonplace anti-semitism was then, I’m skeptical. I can more easily believe that the systematic extermination of European Jews was as remote from American sensibilities as that unpleasantness between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.
This is a good day, then, to reflect on Wiesel’s words. After all, it wasn’t the innate decency of Donald Trump or of ICE functionaries that (mostly) ended the family separation policy at our southern border — it was the vocal indignation of the American people. It wasn’t the innate decency of Donald Trump or of ICE functionaries that narrowed the Muslim Ban — it was the vocal indignation of the American people. It wasn’t the innate decency of Donald Trump or DOJ officials that ended the use of non-uniformed, unidentified paramilitary forces against demonstrators in Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. — it was the vocal indignation of the American people. It wasn’t the innate decency of Donald Trump or of ICE functionaries that protected the “Dreamers” from immediate deportation — it was the vocal indignation of the American people.
So, today, thank the Founders for the First Amendment, thank the generations of educators who have practically trained backtalk into American DNA, and vow to always be worthy of that gift.