Sunday, September 07, 2008

Auschwitz

I too, had a moving experience at Auschwitz. It was different than Trina's, as I've been to Dachau before, and I majored in European History. When you take a class that focuses on the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, you spend quite a bit of time on World War II.

That said, shock was less my response. There was the visceral stuff that was novel--particularly the two tons of hair. It filled large rooms. You could see that it was people's hair--much of it still in braids. Kids, mothers and lovers whose hair was stroked lovingly probably only days or hours before these lives were extinguished. What horrible tragedy.

It certainly defied words to stand on the grounds of such an atrocious place. I've always found such things fascinating--what good and evil humans are capable of, and how incidental stuff like social structures, ideas, and circumstances influence where we land (making those things anything but incidental). But there is a time for fascination, and there is a time that only asks for horror.

Why study the holocaust? There have been lots of reasons proffered. So it never happens again is the most common, and is certainly a good one. I'm not sure that studying it will guarantee such an outcome, but it should help. There are those that point out that people use the term and the event flippantly to make their points--we are always comparing our political villains to Hitler. Such people suggest our study has made it too pedestrian. Interesting.

I think in part we are trying to bring some justice back to the situation. Nothing we can do can undo the atrocities that took place as Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it's like we have this instinct that we can provide slight expiation. If we all enter into empathy with the slaughtered, disdain for the oppressors, the realization that the Fascists weren't a master race, they were bullies, bullied, and acted more basely than animals, somehow something is made a little more right.

Perhaps there is truth to this. I find it interesting that we all have such a longing for justice.

Anyway, this isn't terribly coherent or directional. Auschwitz was overwhelming, sad, important and interesting. It brings you face to face with one of the most atrocious acts in history and it makes you wonder about many things--God, life, death, suffering, Judaism, social darwinism, race, politics, justice, zionism, you name it.

I should also note that it terrifies me when I hear people use language or employ ideology that moves in the fascist direction--unquestioning nationalism, racial scapegoating, cultural superiority, favoritism toward racial homogeneity, etc. I don't mean to misuse the holocaust to make my point, only to say that the greatest human atrocities were deeply rooted in such thinking. We should seriously question ourselves when we are tempted to align with these kinds of ideology.

And we should think also about how we can alleviate suffering. I'm convinced that one of the principal commandments of God is 'love thy neighbor." There is only one picture of judgment where criteria are offered in the Bible. "Did you give me a cup of cold water when I was thirsty? Did you feed me when I was hungry?"

I'm left wondering what I'm doing for human suffering, aiding or alleviating it, and how much.

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