This week at Ohio State University is Holocaust Remembrance Week. Like last year, I am giving a small speech to commemorate this sad occasion at OSU’s Jewish organization, OSU Hillel, during the Friday night service. Since I know most of you won’t be at Hillel, I’m posting my thoughts on the subject here. If there are any grammatical errors or misspellings that I missed, please forgive me, it was not my intention to leave those there.
I hope you enjoy reading this and that it affects you positively. Thank you for reading.
It’s been nearly sixty-eight years since the Holocaust ended and Adolf Hitler committed suicide, signaling the end of the war in Europe. The war left millions dead, millions more displaced, and thousands of questions unanswered, many still unanswered. The most important question though, at least for those of us who commemorate the estimated thirteen million dead, is how could the Holocaust happen?
As one of my majors is History, and my focus is on the war in Europe, I could go into all sorts of reasons as to why the Holocaust happened. I could go over for hours on the “Stabbed-in-the-Back” legend, Germany’s political and economic conditions during the Weimar era, Hitler’s underlings meeting at the Wannsee to determine the Final Solution, quotations from Mein Kampf—but the one reason I’d like to focus on can be summarized in one simple word: dehumanization.
Hitler made numerous insinuations about the Jews of Germany and the rest of Europe. However one thing that remained true of every insinuation, and that was the Jews were less than human, as if they were monsters with barely human form. As more people came over to Hitler’s side, more and more people were willing to see the Jews and all those that Hitler deemed “sub-human”, as not a human being like them.
And once you see something as non-human, it becomes easier and easier to discriminate against it. First the Jews and all “sub-humans” were discriminated against. Then legal measures were taken to turn “sub-humans” into second-class citizens. And then the “sub-humans” were turned into slaves. And finally, cattle to be slaughtered and thrown out with the trash. Such is the value of things considered less than human. It took the efforts of many Righteous Gentiles, risking their very homes, security and lives, to see past this illusion of inhumanity and protect many thousands from the gas chambers Hitler had built for us. If more had thought like the Righteous Gentiles, perhaps more people would’ve survived the Holocaust.
We often think that the events of the war couldn’t possibly happen today. Sadly, we are so wrong. As we all too well know, minorities in this country such as African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans were discriminated against for years, and even amendments to the Constitution haven’t totally brought those with darker skin to the same status as whites, whether it be educationally, economically, or socially. Stereotypes keep well-qualified workers away from jobs, and can even lead to them being imprisoned simply because of their race.
In addition, women the world over are given second-class status, and any actions to rise above that status can get them beaten, imprisoned, committed to insane asylums, or even executed, all in the name of “morality and modesty”. Even in countries where this is not the case, such as America, women still aren’t equal to men in the eyes of the Constitution, and their voices are often drowned out by government officials who do not represent their interests.
And we all know that many people in the LGBT community still lack the rights of straight people. In certain countries homosexual activity can get you jailed or killed, and even in today’s air of equality, there are those who will stop at no end to keep the LGBT community in the place they are now, simply because they are different.
One of the greatest teachers of Judaism, Hillel the Elder, taught that “what is distasteful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” By “it”, Hillel does not refer to the Torah or commentary, but the lesson that we may derive from this main truth. So when you go out tonight, remember that you would not like to see happen to you, don’t wish it or perform it on others. And if you see someone less fortunate than you, don’t look down on them, but ask yourself, “How can I help this person whom I might be like if I were in a similar situation?” And then once you’ve thought about it, act upon your conclusion. That is the whole of Hillel’s teaching. It was applied by the Righteous Gentiles during the Holocuast, and it can still be applied today, by you and by me.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.