Auschwitz, the final destination of Jewish people from across Europe destined to be murdered as a part of the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
Auschwitz, a place that housed prisoners of many religions, persuasions, minorities and nationalities, but whose evil reputation is seared onto our collective conscience because the five gas chambers at Birkenau were there for one reason only – to devour the lives of 960,000 Jews.
Auschwitz, which has evolved into a universal symbol of man’s inhumanity to man – and indeed it does remind us just how cruel human beings can be.
Auschwitz is a lesson for humanity, a warning to the civilized world, a demonstration of where prejudice and stereotyping can lead. But for all of our search for universal meaning, there is a deafening silence about the real lesson to come out of Auschwitz: Anti-Semitism is a proven genocidal killer.
The gas chambers were not built to aid the German war effort. Nor were they designed for murder of political opponents of the regime. Even Soviet POWs, who were initially used as human fodder for the heinous experiments with lethal gas, were ultimately spared the ignominy of being turned to ash. The gas chambers were built for one reason: To murder Jewish people because they were Jewish people.
Work backwards from the doorway to the concrete chambers, back through the trains that dragged packed boxcars through the rolling countryside of France and Holland, Hungary and Slovakia; stand at the platform in the huddled mass of humanity waiting to be deported, uncertain of their final fate; wake at the crack of dawn to screaming roundups; walk back through ghetto streets with its dark sky of yellow stars; review each of the nearly 2,000 Nazi laws that identified Jews, segregated them, stripped them of their jobs, their homes, their citizenship; listen again to the rhetoric and the lies that set the Jews apart, vilified them, made them outcasts, the enemy of the Reich.
As you travel further back in time, read the ideology of hatred of the Jews, an ideology built on lies and racial supremacy. Behind that vicious ideology look at the intent, the intent to remove Jewish people from their role in society, their perceived influence, their physical presence and participation. Dig deep into that intent to the idea, that Jews were an evil threat, a danger, a scourge on the earth, not to be trusted, a threat to be removed; take off the lid of that idea and look inside at the irrational and unjustified hatred of the Jewish people, because they are Jewish people. That we call Anti-Semitism, the place where it starts and ends.
It is time we refer to the Holocaust for what it is – the genocide of the Jews. By using the word “genocide,” we do not trivialize the Holocaust. On the contrary, what happened to the Jews was no metaphor but an existential fact. It was a highly specific, global genocide that the Nazis executed with full intent against every identifiable Jewish person under their jurisdiction. It was the defining genocide and one that deeply scars our civilization.
We need to be reminded that the genocide of the Jews emerged directly out of west European civilization. The hatred, the violence, the brutal killing of Jewish people on our own soil, was entirely our own making. We created the lies, made the myths, justified the story, and watched them board the trains, because deep down we all wanted them gone. Not that we would have said that. After all, we are all too civilized for that.
I say “’we,” although virtually none of us were alive then, because if we don’t say “we”, , we will say ‘”they.” And if it was “them” we can walk away, blame “them,” and never confront the truth of our own failings. The Nazis were doing our dirty work, the convenient executioners of every country that refused to intervene.
Shame on our civilization, shame on our governments, our leaders, our civil society – we all allowed anti-Semitism space to breathe, until eventually it sucked the oxygen from Jewish children’s lungs.
There is no happy end to Auschwitz. There is no silver lining, no hope, no lesson for humanity. The lesson is not “Never Again!” The lesson is that it should never have happened in the first place. Auschwitz stands in damning condemnation of who we are, what we stand for, and our deluded sense of security. Auschwitz is simply empirical evidence that anti-Semitism kills Jewish people.
If we want genocide to stop, we have to start with the genocidal threats we know are real, and never allow them room to breathe. Anti-Semitism is present and it is genocidal. It is NOT a form of racism, because its latencies always include the possibility of genocide. Whenever anti-Semitism is expressed, it carries a genocidal threat. That is how dangerous it is. A swastika daubed on a headstone is not random graffiti; it is a death threat. Anti-Semitism is killing Jewish people right now, on our own streets, in our cities, and it will result in the killing of many, many more Jewish people in future.
I believe that we do not need to repeat the mistakes of the past. I believe that if we say clearly and unequivocally that Auschwitz is the evidence that anti-Semitism is genocidal and we do everything – everything – in our power to halt it, we will be better equipped to face down the many ideologues of hatred we face; we will have greater resolve to stop the forces of extremism; we will build communities of trust and inter-dependence; we will find solutions for wars and policies to prevent them. We must make education more than a soft optional extra, but a hard tool that we deploy effectively to equip our young people with the knowledge, the skills, the confidence and the values that they need to defeat anti-Semitism and be prepared as active citizens and peace makers in our world. We must invest in them the trust they will need in each other. Let us be courageous, systematic, determined and proud to raise a generation that can respect one another and enjoy the freedom that open societies bring.
As we remember the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps we are reminded: no Anti-Semitism – no ideology – no intent – no laws – no ghettos – no roundups – no trains – no Auschwitz – no gas – no ash.