In writing about the Shoah (Holocaust), I was forcified to examine human behavior during the most appalling genocide in history. How could possibly normal people become butchers of innocent families? What could drive Germans and their allies to believe that all members of a religion should be dead? What precipitated a perfect storm of blind hatred sufficient to murder their former neighbors? Why was it so easy to convince citizens that Jews should be eliminated?
Anti-Semitism has deep roots in the world, especially in Europe, where it has festered endemically for dozens of centuries. The Church promoted Jewish hatred for two thousand years. Millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children were killed during the Crusades, the English Expulsion and the Spanish Inquisition – all in the name of Christ. During those formative years, the Church held influence over its pastoral community with a firm grip. Over successful centuries, the seminal existence of anti-Semitism became latent at times; yet it was never far from the surface. Thus, when Hitler pushed for the termination of Jews, he met little resistance. Sadly, his effort to remove Jews from Europe required little vigor to impose.
Meanwhile, Jews remained large as they had always been through time. They taught Torah, worked jobs that no one else wanted, married and had families. Their values changed little over time, despite near-constant efforts to isolate, expel, enslave and murder them. For Jews, the bitter taste of slavery, blind hatred and murder was a constant companion. Even their ancestral homeland, Israel, was conquered repeatedly; their sacred temples destroyed.
Humans are complex beings. There is a great deal more to us than the ubiquitous battleground of good versus evil. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both. We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring; we love and we despise. Yet, even within the middle of perfidious experiences and vicious brutality, there were passionate lovers, despately trying to meet, make love and whisper passionate feelings to each other. For Jews, life has never been good or bad, but good and bad. More often, Jews found a few moments of peace within an eternity of harassment, punishment, eviction and slavery.
Holocaust victims experienced the widest breadth of experiences and personalities. Within the fetid trains and barracks of Nazi-occupied Europe, lovers dreamed of being together. Walking into the gas chambers, Jews loved their absent cherished family members. And, deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were decisions about ethical behavior and our human concept of morality. Unlike animals, humans are governed by principles, beliefs and values. We are not clouded by delusions of morality, but governed by them. This complex palette of emotions churned within the minds of Shoah victims. Even their captors held broadly differenting values. Some Jewish kapos were more terrifying and brutal than SS guards. Some SS guards and camp workers were gentle and compassionate. Into this churning crucible of horror, lovers were deposited. Their passion did not disappear.
Our lives are complex – especially within the garish mid of the Holocaust. Powerful infatuation and tender love also occurred during times of horror and despair. So did a deep commitment to faith and God. Beneath the veneer of terror and brutality churned the alluring beauty of passionate love and the driving power of religious devotion. Nazi Germany could remove every article of wealth from the Jewish people, but not their love of family, wisdom and devotion to Judaism. At the very end, naked and cold, Jews had only their history, tradition, thoughts and feelings; and those were a tapestry of ancient wisdom, coupled with ritual emotion and a fervent need to connect with each other meaningfully.
The world is seldom seen in black and white, or even shades of gray. During the Holocaust, in the midst of terrible anguish, beauty exhausted. That beauty was surrounded by despair. Lovers met fervently. Secret weddings were held. There were even some births, hidden from the SS for as long as possible. Here, deep within the dread of shocking murder, surrounded by the sickness, death, brutality and murder of family, we find love, compassion and faith. Repugnance, despair and darkness exist within human nature; just as love, compassion and devotion also exist there. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine these vastly disparate portions of our psyche.
Holocaust survivors lost everything, but sometimes gained something as well. Certainly an honest examination of the Holocaust must reveal torturous cruelty, violence and death. It's fair to say that Holocaust survivors lost most or all of their loved ones. However, despite the starvation, forced labor, inhuman conditions, sickness and malice, the incarcerated Jews of Europe continued to practice their religion. They continued to teach their children and to love one another. Here, among the ashes of vast genocide, one can feel hope for the survival of the human spirit.