As a Jew, the Holocaust is always with me. When I whine about something (which I often do), I’m instantly stricken with guilt because I know that, 70 years ago, across Europe, women with lives similar to mine (middle-aged, middle-class) were suddenly pitched into a nightmarish maelstrom from which there was no escape.
Am I shlepping heavy groceries from the car? At least I have food. Do those new shoes I bought pinch my feet? Not only am I shod, but my shoes haven’t been stripped from my body as a preliminary to herding me into a gas chamber. Am I feeling a bit ill or suffering a migraine? I could be laboring in the quarry at Mauthausen, starved, diseased, abused, and alone.
I don’t have survivor’s guilt. I have second-generation survivor’s guilt. On the one hand, I know how lucky I am and how blessed my life is. On the other hand, I can never, ever escape the mental images of those who thought they had my luck, only to see it vanish as if it had never happened.
We only think we’re not on the volcano’s edge. We all are. It’s just that some of us have lives that allow us to pretend the sulfurous fumes aren’t actually rising up around us. I may not live a Hobbesian life at this moment, but there is actually very little between me and a moral entropy that threatens violence and horrible death.
One day a year, we take the inchoate guilt and anxiety that plague most Jews (and many non-Jews?) and declare it an official remembrance day. That day is Yom Hashoah. With every passing year, there are fewer people alive who have first hand memories of the Holocaust. It is therefore up to us to carry the torch and try, through the act of memory, to beat back the darkness surrounding us.
Here is my post on the Holocaust, one that looks at those who lived through it, those who escape from it, and those who were pitched into a Pacific, rather than European, Holocaust.
Here is Bruce Kesler’s post about the village that saw his family’s end.
Here is The Political Commentator’s post.
And here is a link to a book that Bruce recommended: Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The book isn’t actually about Europe as a whole. It’s about a specific geographic area bounded by Germany and the Soviet Union, but one that tellingly did not include Germany itself or the core Soviet States. It was in this territory, Belarus, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., that the Nazis and the Soviets put into effect the greatest killing effort in human history, something that would not be seen again until Mao visited his Great Leap Forward on his own hapless Chinese people.
In this geographic area — the Bloodlands of the title — the Soviets and the Nazis systematically starved, shot, gassed, and creatively killed millions of fellow Europeans, many of whom the Nazis shipped in from far-flung geographic points. The victims’ crime? They were enemies of the state, whether because they were Jews, gypsies, farmers, POWs from the opposing side’s armies, political dissidents, political ignoramuses, or anything or anyone else the state feared.
The book’s lesson is clear from the first page: While one can easily find individuals with no conscience, an individual’s reach is limited. That’s not the case when it comes to a start whose citizens allow it to seize unfettered power. A state that has no conscience (and when does a state collective ever have a soul?) can too easily become a killing machine.
When savvy people figure out that I’m a conservative, they often ask why. I think they are surprised when I don’t launch into a long discourse about policies and goals. I say only one thing: “I fear anything that consolidates too much power. The bigger an entity, the more mischief it can do. I like to keep political power reasonable diffused. A government should be big enough to be useful, but not so big that it becomes both unstoppable and very dangerous.”