The Horror of the Holocaust

(Charleston Gazette, April 22, 1994)

By James A. Haught

We all know the Holocaust story by heart. Yet a visit to the new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington hits you with horror, almost as if you were learning of the ghastly extermination for the first time.

Maybe it's because the museum forces you to see the hidden potential for cruelty lurking in all people, even democratic Americans.

I went there last week with a group of newspaper editors. The exhibits were sickening: Nazi films of soldiers shooting defenseless throngs in trenches -- civilians stripped naked and marched at gunpoint to their deaths -- thousands of bodies stacked, trucked, bulldozed and buried like debris.

We stared mute at ruthless military power slaughtering children, women, oldsters and other innocents who did nothing to deserve it, and were helpless to resist it. They were executed simply because they were born in families with a minority religious heritage.

Europe's anti-Semitism originated centuries ago as purely religious hostility. Jews were falsely slandered as "the Christ-killers.'' In the 11th century, Crusaders massacred Jews as "infidels.'' Subsequently, mobs periodically killed Jews because of absurd rumors that they were sacrificing Christian children or stealing host wafers from churches and driving nails through them.

Church councils forced Jews to live in ghettos and wear badges of shame. Occasionally, mass expulsions sent them penniless into exile. Periods of assimilation and tolerance were shattered by periods of persecution.

In the 1800s, the prejudice lost part of its religious tone and became more social and ethnic. This bigotry helped the Nazis rise to power. It enabled them to degrade Jews, revoke their human rights, and eventually set up a national program to kill every citizen who had even one Jewish grandparent.

A depressing aspect of the historic horror was the eagerness with which societies outside Germany joined the killing. In Romania, members of the Legion of the Archangel Michael forced Jewish families into the Bucharest slaughterhouse in 1941, stripped them naked, and butchered them in meatcutting machines. In Croatia, a puppet fascist government executed Jews, Gypsies, Serbs and others more ferociously than Nazis did. Some Hungarians, Latvians, Ukrainians and others helped the Nazis massacre Jewish families.

Some Poles hated Jews so intensely that they continued killing them after the war, after Nazi Germany was crushed. Saddest of all is the realization that America, Britain and other democracies could have saved millions of doomed Jews, but refused.

During the 1930s, before Germany launched the "final solution,'' Hitler attempted to deport all Jews. He offered to pay their passage to America. But the United States was more bigoted and segregated in those days, and President Roosevelt feared a political backlash if he accepted the offer. America welcomed celebrities such as Albert Einstein, but few others.

Britain likewise refused to let Germany's Jews move to Palestine. An international conference was held to find sanctuaries for the endangered people, but it produced nothing.

The story of the ship St. Louis tells it all: Hundreds of German Jews thought they had obtained visas to move to Cuba. They booked passage on the St. Louis -- but when they reached Havana, they were forbidden to land. The ship headed for America, but the Coast Guard forced it to stay offshore. Finally, it returned to Europe with its unwanted, doomed passengers.

After the war, when Adolf Eichmann was on trial as a war criminal, he contended that Germany wouldn't have begun its annihilation program in 1940 if other nations had been willing to receive Jews.

I was young in the 1930s and '40s. I remember America's pervading prejudice. At the Holocaust Museum, shame came over me as I realized that most Americans in my youth simply didn't care what happened to Europe's Jews.

If all people have a potential for cruelty, they also have compassion. Societies can learn and change. New England's Puritans flogged, tortured and hanged Quakers -- until they sickened of what they were doing, and stopped.

The Holocaust Museum is a horrible place, but every American should go there. We all need to be reminded that bigotry can produce the unthinkable. We need a jolt to make us adamant about protecting everyone's human rights. The museum will make you vow: Never again.