A Contemplative Walk Through the US Holocaust Museum

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. -Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl’s wrote about his experience of the Holocaust, first in a labour camp, then eventually Auschwitz, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Horrific yet insightful, Viktor builds on a number of topics in his first-hand account. Do human beings die when we lose our will to live, even though we may not be physically dead? If suffering is unavoidable, how does one cope with it?

The Holocaust happened, we know this. But why, and how? If you asked me this question a month ago, it was because Hitler a bad, deluded man, and through opportune circumstances rose to power and exerted his fascist will on the world. Concise, but closed off. This view doesn’t go beneath the surface.

Portraits of those who lived in the town of Eishyshok, which once had a population of over 3,500 Jews. None live there today. Photo: abpan.com

There isn’t a two-sentence summary that can be made without being disingenuous. There are very good people in this world, and there are also very bad people. But it is not so black and white – it’s a spectrum. Was this event a coordination of a few very evil persons, or was it an effort of many, slightly evil people?

The first body of text you find at the US Holocaust museum in Washington DC: “This museum is not an answer; it is a question”

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Interior light wells separate the exhibits. with the atrium ceiling escalating in pitch from one end to the other. Names of cities and villages taken by Germany during the occupation are engraved in the glass of one side of the building. The other holds the names of the people who were taken.

Antisemitism has been going on for centuries, having been known as “the longest hatred”. Documentation on some of the first antisemitic texts dates back to 279 BCE, and attitudes towards Jews has escalated, and calmed, within various regions and their political regimes ever since.

An Escalation

Enter Germany post-WWI. Sanctions and monetary reparations placed on Germany at the terminus of the war have put it in a dire state. It is well understood that state of the economy plays significantly on how a society will behave. The promise of the NSDAP (Nazi) party: Economic prosperity, scientific progress, and a deepening of German values. If you are trying to provide for your family in a period of extreme depression, would these points hit home with you?

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Defining a responsible party (or group), and placing blame of the current situation is a well entrenched human response. Post war, propaganda flourished. This municipally-raised sign literally translates to “The Jews are our misfortune”. At the time, it was popular belief that Jewish people has infiltrated their society and were responsible for exploiting and repressing the Aryan race.

Though discrimination was surging, Jewish sentiment remained rational. The majority of those remained thought that the times were simply a phase and could not last. The law, and order of a developed society would prevail. Wrongs would be righted, things would be just.

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By 1933’s, enacted law rejected Jewish civil service in any form. Doctors, lawyers, professors, stripped of any influence through their work and condemned to poverty. A self inflicted strike, given that of the 38 Nobel prizes awarded to Germans between 1905-1936, fourteen prize winners were Jewish.

Some Jews sought refuge in other countries, but no nation extended open arms. Many relocated to Scandinavia and the Netherlands, a move which would prove fatal when Germany took control of these regions during the war. Canada’s position on accepting refugees was “none is too many”, a book was later published under the same title.

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By the mid 1930’s, any person with more than one Jewish grandparent would have to seek governmental approval to marry someone with German blood. This chart of the Nuremberg Race Laws visualizes the policies to prevent racial mixing.

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Torah, the Hebrew bible, can take a year or more to draft by a highly trained scribe. Still today, they are hand written in irreversible ink, any errors could result in a do-over of several days of work. Here, they found desecrated in the streets after a notable pogrom (violent riot), ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, Photos depict the before & after of a nearby synagogue, which was nearly leveled by mob. There was now precedent for the future violence against Jews.

The Solution

Germany marches on Austria in the spring of 1938, annexing it within a month. By this time the following year it will do the same to Czechoslovakia, then move on Poland; the event which triggers war between Britain and Germany. Germany continues to advance in all directions, setting up Ghettos along the way. These camps began as a segregative tool as early as 1933, but their function horrifically evolved as wartime ensued. Over 40,000 were tallied by the end of the war.

The following years have been recounted in depth, and need not repeating here. These are emotionally difficult steps to retrace, but it is a necessary journey to understand what the capacity for hate can culminate to.

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses

We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers

From Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam

And because we are only made of fabric and leather

And not of blood and flesh

Each one of us avoided the hellfire

-Moshe Szulsztein

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At arrival to some camps, subjects would be removed of their shoes, clothing, and even hair – items that would find utility elsewhere. Human hair was sold in 40 pound bales to manufacturers of mattresses and pillows.

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Two windows. This is an original transport car used for resettlement to concentration camps. One particular train was loaded with over 4,000 people, standing room only. The journey would last three days. No food, no water. One third of the passengers would survive the trip.

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The clandestine photographs of new arrivals is harrowing. Images of families, mothers with their children, in moments of confusion and displacement before marching into gas chambers disguised as showers.

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Prisoners allotted to labour camps would be given a tattoo on their arm, this number that would replace their name. These four Greek men survived the labour camps, but continue to wear this reminder. Work will set you free, they were told.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemoller

By the end of the war, the population of Jews would be reduced from 17 million (1939) to 11 million (1945). Today, the global Jewish population rests at 14.5 million.

Today, tomorrow

“There is no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear”. – Hans Rosling

We know what can happen in a polarized society during austere times. To draw on the lessons learned of the extremes, can we better navigate what comes next?

Today, regardless of which side of the political spectrum one sits, we all seem to be taking more extreme views. Controversial issues and political discussions quickly dissolve from rational debate and escalate into emotional arguments.

This recent article suggests that one in four Canadians “hate” their political opposites, believing that people who don’t vote like them are their enemies. My left leaning friends reading this might be thinking that “those conservative schmucks would behave like that!”, but the data suggests that this sentiment is equally numbered on both ends of the political spectrum.

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When a polarized government represents polarized populations, not much progress can be made. And if this is where we sit in times of relative wealth and economic success, could an extended recession bring out the worst in us?

In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling digs into how our worldview has been distorted by the rise of new media, which preys on our reactionary and erroneous nature, providing guidance on how to separate fact from fiction when forming our opinions.

Today, Life expectancy around the globe is increasing, impoverished populations are decreasing, the gender gap is nearly closed. There is no doubt that terrible circumstances still exist for women, people of colour, people in poverty or enduring political conflict. But the regions where the majority of the population live, it might actually be the best time to be alive.

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If reliance on petroleum products will continue (hint: it will), could pipelines be safer and more efficient than current transport methods? First-hand experience of Measles is no longer, are vaccines really necessary? Surveilling terrorist cells is good for our society, but at what cost to our personal privacy?

There is no malicious intent in rejecting these notions, it is simply people who are fearful. They are scared of their regional environment being decimated, their child succumbing to illness, private matters becoming public. People looking out for their own.

A pediatrician friend has a simple policy on handling parents’ who don’t believe their children need to be vaccinated: they are not worthy of her care. So, these parents will shop around for another healthcare provider who will either turn a blind eye to their stance, or potentially encourage their behavior. Conflict and disagreement dodged at the expense of furthering a public health crisis.

As our mass media sources continue to successfully capture our attention by promoting content that incites a reaction, being strong agreement or opposition, we need to be vigilant. But we also need compassion and patience with those who might not have the same capacity.

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 Crossing the Brooklyn bridge into New York City: A place proving that big ideas, money, and differences can all coexist.

Listen to understand, ask questions from a compassionate angle without a judgmental tone. The easiest way to disarming a concrete conviction might be asking someone how they came to that way of thinking.

Remember, no one person is in charge of changing minds, we all have to make up our own. But a gentle nudge back to the center, back to the facts and reality, is progress. With this, feverish, fringe ideas cannot gain momentum.

Curious for more? Here’s what I drew on for this post:

US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Taking in the exhibits fully will run 4-5 hours, and following it with a few hours of quiet time are recommended.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

Other Resources:

Hans Rosling: How not to be ignorant about the world (Ted Talk)

The Holocaust Explained

‘Facing History’ – A deeper dive into the Holocaust

Schindler’s List – currently holding #6 of IMDB’s All Time Films.