Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom Hashoa

Today is Yom Hashoa , or Holocaust Remembrance Day (though "Shoah" does not mean "holocaust" -- which actually means "a burnt offering" -- but rather "catastrophe").


(ETA: I was certain that I had been told that "shoah" means "immolation" or something similar, but three online dictionaries insist it's "catastrophe.")

"I've noticed that about your people, Doctor.  You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.  You speak of the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours." -- Spock, "The Immunity Syndrome."

After Spock's comment above, McCoy, cynically answers, "'Suffer the death of thy neighbor,' eh, Spock?  Now, you wouldn't wish that on us, would you?"

"It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody."

Ironically, I think one of the most difficult things about the Holocaust is the sheer number of people that died.


Twenty million soldiers, and forty million civilians.

Sixty million people.

How do you conceive of millions of people dead?  Of sixty million, at that?

How many people can truly conceive of what a million means, anyway?

And, yet, every one of those millions was a light, a spark, and every one of those millions had people who grieved their loss.

It's staggering, to the point almost of abstraction -- which gets to the heart of Spock's comment.  Of course we find it easier to understand the death of "one."  One life snuffed out is hard enough to encompass...to try to conceptualize 400 -- the number of Vulcans about whose death the good Doctor is so incredulous -- let alone millions is almost an impossible task.  After all, when does "millions" cease to be "millions of faces" and become...well...just "millions."

And imagine the horror -- imagine the sheer, unutterable horror -- if we truly did suffer every one of those deaths?

So is it too much to ask to take a few moments out, once a year, and consider the lives that were cut short by forces of history that ceased to see a human being as a person and turned them into -- quite literally, in some cases -- a number?

To remember the approximately 6 million Jews who perished in ghettos, concentration camps, work camps, death camps?

To remember the approximately 5 million other people who perished in the camps, including gypsies, slaves, gay men and women, and others?

To remember the thousands upon thousands upon thousands people with disabilities who were exterminated as practice for the real Final Solution?

To remember the heroes who cared for, hid, saved, and protected the other victims, at grave danger to themselves?

Of course not.

The problem is, the Holocaust asks us to peer into the deepest, darkest parts of human nature, and to accept that they are there.

The Holocaust is uncomfortable, and nowhere is that more exquisitely portrayed than in an episode of the Twilight Zone called "Deaths-Head Revisited."  You can watch it online here, (iTunes has a radio play of the episode, but it's not quite right...for one thing, they consistently pronounce Lutze wrong) and I would highly recommend at least the teaser:

A former SS officer has come to check into a little inn, and feigns forgetfulness of where he is.

Reluctantly -- oh, so reluctantly -- the woman behind the desk admits in a quavering voice, "Dachau, sir.  Dachau."

"Ah, yes," he says, unable to hide his pride, "Dachau."  He points to the hills and inquires whether that is still the camp.

The woman, appalled, wishes they would "burn it to the ground."  The memory is clearly painful, and she wishes to avoid it.

Being the Twilight Zone, awful things happen to the former SS captain, including a trial run by a former inmate (played amazingly, searingly well by the same man who played Otto Frank in the original Diary of Anne Frank -- also a weakness of the radio production mentioned above).  At the end, a doctor comments:  "Dachau.  Why does it still stand?  Why do we keep it standing?"
There is an answer to the doctor's question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes - all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth.
People often quote the adage that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and I would imagine most people think that this is the function of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But here, in one of the most haunting tags that Rod Serling ever wrote, he points to another reason to remember, to be haunted by remembering: because if we don't, we are complicit in the victims' deaths -- after all, it is only when someone is no longer remembered that they're truly gone.

In a later episode, less well acted and less affecting in its product though perhaps not in the thought behind it, the Twilight Zone continues the meditation.  If by becoming inured to or forgetful of the horror, we become complicit, the gravediggers, the assassins of the victims all over again -- then by "Othering" people, any people, we are allowing the spirit of Hitler to live, thrive, and survive.
Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare - Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami, Florida; Vincennes, Indiana; Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive.
"Any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being."

Or, in the words Diane Duane fed to Sarek, "The spear in the Other's heart is the spear in your own; you are he.  There is no other wisdom, and no other hope for us than that we grow wise."

To me, that's the heart of Holocaust Remembrance Day -- that we take the day to remember that words and thoughts sow deeds.  Casual epithets, whether it's the "N word" or the "R word" matter.  They shape thoughts, and given enough times, thoughts can shape actions.

I am not Jewish, though some people in my family are.

I am not gay, though some people in my family are.

I do not have a disability, though some people in my family do.

My family's history is neither Slavic nor Romani.

None of that should matter, of course.  The Holocaust should be horrific whether or not it could have affected you directly.

But somehow, that's my hook.  That's how I can take those millions of faces and even begin to conceptualize them.  They're my aunt, uncle, cousins...brother.

Only through a fortunate accident of birth was I born in a place and time where the Holocaust would not directly impact my life, though personal experience, but I suspect this is behind my long-time interest in the topic.

Today, though, history, psychology, anthropology...none of that matters.

Today, I remember.