He who forgets will be destined to remember.
— Pearl Jam
This evening marks the beginning of the one-day observance of Yom HaShoah, the Hebrew term for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yom HaShoah observance is a difficult, but necessary act, one in which participants must focus on one of the greatest horrors of humankind, the cruel extermination of 11 million people, including more than 6 million Jews, by Adolf Hitler and a Nazi regime whose subhuman atrocities will forever be a dark stain on the human soul.
The Holocaust started with Hitler’s ascendancy in Germany in 1933, after which he ordered a boycott of all Jewish-run businesses. In 1935, Hitler facilitated passage of the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship, and in November of 1938, just before the onset of World War II, frenzied Nazis carried out a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany, during which they physically injured thousands and arrested more than 30,000. Those arrested were taken to early concentration camps.
With the start of the war in 1939, Jews were ordered into ghettos, from which as many as 1,000 a day were sent to concentration, work and death camps. At the concentration camps, Jews lived in squalor with the barest of rations and were subject to extreme physical labor, torture and were used as unwilling participants in medical experiments.
At the death camps, set up solely for the extermination of large numbers of Jews, groups were frequently herded into shower rooms and killed en masse using poisonous gases. In the most notorious of these six camps, Auschwitz, more than 1.1 million Jews were exterminated.
It’s been more than 60 years since the horrors of the Nazis were exposed to the world. In that time, some supposedly learned individuals, as well as some neo-Nazi and some extremist Arabic and anti-Semitic groups, have denied the severity — and some even the veracity — of Hitler’s genocidal megalomania. They’ve denigrated the memories of the millions who died at the hands of human monsters by calling into question historical fact.
In 1945, Supreme Allied Commander and future U.S. President Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower took steps to halt any potential future attempts to rewrite the history of the Nazi atrocities.
“The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency,” Eisenhower wrote. “Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any time experienced an equal sense of shock.
“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just ‘propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to (Gen. George) Patton’s headquarters that evening, I sent communications to both Washington and London urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and the British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
After coming upon some of the victims of the death camps, Eisenhower ordered photographs to be taken and for the German people from surrounding villages to view the atrocities of the Nazi army and in some cases bury the dead.
He later wrote, “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up 20 or 30 naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”
Like Eisenhower, we may find the task gruesome, even nightmare-enducing, but for this one day all of us should follow the lead of our former commander in chief and take some time to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. There are among us, after all, men and woman who relive those horrors every day.
And as we consider the inhumanity of Hitler and the unspeakable cruelty of his army of Nazi monsters, we should take to heart the slogan adopted by Jewish Holocaust survivers: L’eolam lo od ... Never again.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.