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Lest we remember

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Hey everyone. Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to address the Holocaust, something I thought I should do while in Berlin. It’s impossible to escape here.

Tackling the Holocaust is a no-win situation for a writer. In the first place, other writers have already done so, and much better than I can. Second, you’re bound to piss people off, no matter what you do. It’s still an open wound, a raw nerve to a lot of people. No matter what you say, you’re going to offend someone. Well, I’m tackling it anyway. Because it’s just a mountain you have to climb, if you’re writing about the 20th century, and not talking about it is a worse sin than talking about it and offending someone. Here goes.

“That was mere foreplay. Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” (German: “Das war Vorspiel nur. Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”)
– Heinrich Heine, Almansor (1821), referring to the Spanish Inquisition

Berlin is the most terrifying city I’ve ever seen. Not for what it is, but for what it portends. Berlin is a diverse, friendly, multi-cultural melting pot of various creeds, races and languages. Frederick the Great brought the persecuted Huegonots and Jews here, built the Catholics a church, and made immigrants welcome. Einstein and the Brothers Grimm attended and taught at the university here. It has long been a center of culture, sophistication, and urbanity.
What terrifies me about Berlin is this: if the Holocaust can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
The worst genocides in Europe of the 20th century were carried out in Turkey, Serbia and Germany. I’ve been to all three countries, now, and these are some of the friendliest and most culturally diverse I’ve seen. The last century’s holocausts weren’t carried out by barbarians, Huns, Goths, Vandals or whatever boogeymen you might care to imagine. Ther were carried out by societies far more tolerant than our own, with people who look and talk exactly like us. If you want to see the face of the last century’s murderers, you need only look in the mirror.
No? You think we’re better than the Germans? I tell you we are not. And what they can do, we can do. There but for the grace of history goes the United States.
On September 11th, 2001, the US was attacked by 19 men, most from Saudi Arabia. On September 12th, people in New York were spitting on sikhs.
Sikhs. That’s an Indian religion that has nothing to do with Islam, much less have any responsibility for the attacks. But we spat on them. Because they looked strange to us. Because they looked foreign. And, suddenly, anything foreign was hateful to us.
There was so much hatred and rage in New York City that day it could have turned to bloodshed damn quickly. This is NYC, USA, by the way. We, of the tired, poor, huddled masses, the immigrant city, the multicultural mecca. And the only thing that kept September 12th from turning into a Kristallnacht for resident Muslims was that the people that were in charge decided that was something they didn’t want to see happen. Not because we were so noble that the thought of taking our anger and fear out on a minority population was repellant. Some of us were all to eager to do so. But because the chief of police posted guards in front of mosques.
We aren’t any better than the Germans were. We’ve just been more fortunate in our choice of leaders.
And before we get too high and mighty patting ourselves on the back for electing Barack Hussein Obama, remember that Hitler came to power with only about 30% of the vote. Think about some of the wack-jobs that have won that much of the vote in the US (George Wallace, anyone?). And we have our own history of genocide and enslavement, as anyone of African or Native American descent will tell you. I’m not equating our barbarisms with those of the Holocaust. I don’t own the moral calculator that lets you determine which atrocity is worse, chart and compare which evil is greater, which is less than, which values are equivalent. I don’t think you can weigh human suffering and culpability on a scale and rank our tragedies.
Still, America has been lucky. We’ve been blessed with a system of government that has so far prevented power from accumulating too much in the hands of one individual, the key flaw in the Weimar Republic. Without those checks and balances people are so often decrying, we could so very easily begin that slide toward totalitarianism.
I hope this idea bothers you. I hope you disagree with me. I hope what I’ve written pisses you off so much that you’re dying to see me proved wrong. I hope it sticks in your craw, the way it does for me, like the memory of a childhood humilation. Because we must always be bothered. that is the only way we keep our democracy.That is a vigil we must always keep. That is a night through which me must never fall asleep. Because the night we drift off, we wake up the next morning to long knives, and broken glass.
Much of the discourse about the Holocaust centers around the need to remember. Yes, but also, if I may turn the idea on its head, memory is also frightens me. Someday, hopefully far in the future, long after we’re all dead, someone will remember the appeal of fascism. They’ll remember what people liked about it, remember how it was able to draw entire nations under its control. They’ll remember how to build concentration camps, and how to turn an entire populace into complicit accomplices. That’s the rememberance I fear. We’ll remember why we committed genocide in the first place. Because it was us, brothers and sisters. This is something we did, to ourselves. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to atrocities. They are us and we are them. And someday, fascism and hate will sound like a pretty good idea, and we’ll remember why we thought they were a pretty good idea, all those years ago.
Let’s forget that.
Let’s keep building monuments. Let’s keep building museums and memorials. Let’s remember what happened to the last country that let fascism come to power. Let’s remember a city that was leveled, then torn in two for over forty years, and remember the price that must be paid for allowing the unthinkable to happen. And with that memory, maybe we can stave off the memory of ambition, cruelty, and the infrastructure of terror.

Lest we remember.

“Goddamn you all. I told you so.” HG Wells’ epitaph, 1946

“It happened; therefore, it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
Primo Levi.

  1. Karin
    August 9, 2009 at 1:30 am

    Okay, I’ll bite. This one needs a response.

    You are right that there was hatred and rage in NYC on September 12. I agree that it was wise that the police put guards in front of the mosques. Ugly, fear-driven acts of violence and discrimination happened then and continue to happen now. But I fundamentally disagree that “the only thing that kept September 12th from turning into a Kristallnacht for resident Muslims was that the people that were in charge decided that was something they didn’t want to see happen”.

    You’ve only told part of the story here. At the same time that the hatred and rage were boiling, there was another very different kind of response. There was also a great outpouring of compassion, kindness, and care for one another. In the midst of the horror, I saw more beauty in NYC on September 11 and the days that followed than I’ve seen there at any other time. The people along Atlantic Avenue who handed out glasses of water to those of us streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge, dusted in ash (if we were lucky) or coated in it (if we were not), were not on the cusp of violence. The friends who took me in as family when I was too terrified to sleep alone were not taking up arms. And the neighbors who joined us in a candlelight vigil at dusk for those who were lost and those we still hoped they would find were not using those candles to light the torches of riot.

    As for checks and balances, the ones I remember doing the decrying were “elected” (installed) members of the executive branch at the time, using these events as excuse to unravel our constitution and perpetrate widespread violence on those who had nothing to do with the attacks (and in the process killing more Americans than the attackers of September 11 did). So much for “we’ve just been more fortunate in our choice of leaders.”

    As much as I would like to forget, we all must remember. And then we must act. The world we live in is the cumulative result of each of our choices. How do you choose to respond? Broken glass or glass of water?

  2. J
    August 14, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Hmm… too much to tackle here, but part of what kept Sept. 11th from being Kristallnacht is, indeed, Kristallnacht. As Jon Stewart pointed out to, I think, Bernard Goldberg, all the violence on tv and sculpted pieces made of human excrement aside, it’s simply no longer culturally acceptable to out-and-out say certain things in polite company. To be sure, some people did and still do, and you see some absolute amazing craziness right now with the town halls and birthers and people said and did horrible things righta fter 9/11. But despite the gaping and gawking (gawping?) and lavish attention we give to people like Ann Coulter, I can’t think of a leader running on enunciated hate who has received 30% of the US vote. Sure, there are subtexts aplenty and thinly veiled appeals to racism and many other horrifying things, but Jon Stewart is right. As milquetoast as mainstream media may be, and as quick to conflate all forms of discrimination and trump them up even as they denounce them, I don’t know that a national elected figure could get away with saying out and out “We’re better than you.” I’m sure you can think of a bunch of counter-examples, but I guess I’m just saying that at the end of the day, as scary as many people are here, Trent Lott ended up getting trouble for his nostalgia for Strom “Nigra” Thurmond. The fact that he thought it ok to make the comment is at least ameliorated by the fact that he could hardly run for President with that attitude.

    It’s not that I think things are great by any means; I’m half tempted to delete this whole comment because it seems to sound much more upbeat than I am. And it certainly *can* happen here, and has come closer than I’d like, but it remains — it hasn’t. And while massacring or threatening to massacre the “Other” at a distance (say, Iraq) remains acceptable, as does rounding up our own citizens to question them based on little more than (perceived) religion, I can’t think of an example of people being ok with massacring other US citizens for a while yet. (Malign neglect is a different matter.)

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