May 26, 2024
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The Shoah: An Event of Overbearing Magnitude

“There are events of such overbearing magnitude that one ought not to remember them all the time, but one must not forget either. Such an event is the Holocaust,” declared Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe.

Although the rebbe survived the Shoah, his wife and children were not so fortunate—all of them were murdered by the Nazis.

Remembering is a critical part of what it means to be a Jew, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg reminds us. Because we recall that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt, we view those living in desperate circumstances differently from people who never suffered. Our memory and experience of the Exodus commands us to treat people with love and compassion.

Memory guides our response, the rabbi notes. When memories fade, the climate for Holocaust deniers is created. Holocaust denial is not a Jewish issue alone. It is an attempt to distort the way in which we convey the past to the future. If we are concerned about the way history is communicated, we must be vigilant about transmitting facts without allowing those with their own agenda to obscure or falsify our understanding of the past.

Preserving the memory of the Holocaust enables us to understand how the Germans used the latest technology in their attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe.

 

The Fragility of Civilization

Studying the Holocaust is essential for understanding the role and responsibilities of individuals, organizations and nations when confronted with the policies of annihilation. German journalist Heinz Hoöhne described the need to recognize this obligation when he declared, “The sensational fact, the really horrifying feature, of the annihilation of the Jews, was that thousands of respectable fathers of families made murder their official business and yet, when off duty, still regarded themselves as ordinary law-abiding citizens who were incapable even of thinking of straying from the strict path of virtue.”

Henrich Himmler, Reichsföhrer SS, expected the mass massacres had to be implemented “coolly and cleanly,” Hoöhne said. “Even while obeying the official order to commit murder, the SS man must remain ‘decent.’”

In his now famous speech to SS officers in Posen on October 4, 1943, Himmler assured those involved in the annihilation of the Jewish people they had remained decent. “Most of you know what it means to see one hundred corpses piled up, or five hundred, or one thousand,” he said. “To have gone through this and—except for instances of human weakness—to have remained decent, that has made us tough. This is an unwritten, never-to-be written, glorious page of our history.”

 

Social Media

The urgency to teach the Shoah becomes clearer as social media has had a significant effect on people’s thinking, beliefs and opinions. Here are just two examples. Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America,” in which he justifies the murder of 2,977 people on September 11, 2001, went viral on TikTok. AI-altered video clips of Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Reichstag speech have also gone viral. In the speech, Hitler declared that the impending war would result in the “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” The number of positive responses to these two clips demonstrates the nature of the problems we face.

Gordon G. Chang, journalist and political analyst, has exposed the Chinese regime’s use of its algorithm to spread pro-Hamas disinformation, Russian accounts about the Ukraine war, and other pro-Chinese Communist Party propaganda. The Party also exploits the app to attempt to destroy the youth of America by inundating them with messages encouraging the use of illegal drugs, and other self-destructive behavior—even suicide.

 

Approaching the Shoah as Social Pathologists

Franklin Littel, a Protestant theologian, has suggested that we approach the study of the Holocaust as social pathologists studying a sick society in order to discover how people from practically all segments of German society participated in the destruction process.

Indeed, what is so alarming about the Holocaust is the involvement of average people, many of whom participated not so much out of hatred of Jews, but because this was part of their job. Historian Christopher R. Browning notes that the “Jewish experts” in the German Foreign Office, for example, were not forced by “any external physical threat” to carry out policies against the Jews, and that antisemitism was only “a contributing factor but not the decisive one” in determining their actions.

The main reason they complied was because “they were dominated by a compulsion to keep their records unstained. This compulsion was so strong that it blotted out any sense of individual responsibility. They viewed their activity … solely from the point of view of how it affected themselves, not what they were doing to others. “In short,” Browning concludes, “they became dehumanized.”

Ambitious careerists exist in every modern bureaucratic state, Browning adds, who are more than eager to assist “the leadership of the moment as the most obvious mode of personal advancement. But the careerists, with their excessive willingness to allow themselves to be used, become dangerous or criminal only when used by politicians of even greater ambition and less moral scruple than themselves.”

 

A Final Note and Warning: “Once You Have the Intellectuals on Your Side”

Historian Yehuda Bauer posits that what occurred in Germany can be described as a sociological model. “A small pseudo-intellectual elite—and there’s no doubt that the Nazis were intellectuals, or perhaps pseudo-intellectuals—gained power in a large, modern society, not because of their potentially genocidal ideas, but due to economic, social, and political crises. In addition to making promises, they [the Nazis] gained power with the help of this elite, who were attracted by these utopias. The pseudo-intellectual governing body put genocidal plans into action, not because it originally identified with these plans, but rather with the general ideas of Nazi society. Once you have the intellectuals on your side (or the vast majority of them), you can do anything you want, including mass murder, genocide, total annihilation of human beings, humiliation, and so on. The lower rungs of society will follow the intelligentsia.”


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and on the advisory board of the National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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