Something that never ceases to amaze (and annoy) me is the extent to which various euphemisms are used to describe what happened in the Holocaust to six million Jews. Why is everyone – whether individuals, politicians or scholars – so reluctant to use the correct term: murder?
For that is what happened to my grandparents, your aunts and uncles, other people’s parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins, neighbours and friends. They were all murdered in the most dastardly, cold-hearted, brutal and inhumane manner. That is all that can be said about that dreadful time in human history, and Jewish history in particular, that took place in Europe not so very long ago. None of those people simply died, disappeared or perished of their own account. They were murdered, and the people who perpetrated those crimes were murderers.
How did it happen that Germany, a country noted for its achievements in the fields of culture, philosophy, music and art, managed to descend to a level of bestiality unseen since civilization began? How could human beings, people who had homes, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of their own, wreak the most dreadful horrors on individuals who simply adhered to a different religion than theirs or, in the terms devised by their leaders, belonged to a different race than theirs? Simply by labelling them as inferior did not necessarily have to mean that they merited being killed outright, mercilessly, willy nilly, by hook or by crook, and that this had to be applied to every last one of them – men, women, children and babes-in-arms.
Somehow, by managing to persuade the nation that those others were less than human, human beings were able to erase every spark of humanity in themselves and brutally murder other human beings. The Jews did not represent a physical threat to the German nation, and had even contributed to progress in the sciences and the arts. The wild imaginings of unbalanced leaders who had managed to gain the confidence of the German nation led to the riot of hatred and violence that culminated in the construction of extermination camps, factories of death, operating with unflinching efficiency to murder six million Jews (as well as various others) on production lines which first eked out labour from whoever could still be of some use to the German munitions industry.
And let’s not forget on this Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust that it was not the Germans alone who wallowed in the orgy of death and destruction. Their henchman in other European countries helped to round up the Jews, keep the ghettos and camps guarded, the railway tracks oiled, the cattle-trucks filled, and the spoils of war gathered. And although there were a few decent people who helped to hide and save a handful of Jews, they were, after all, few and far between.
As we sat at the Seder table just a week or two ago we read in the Haggada how throughout our history other nations have sought to destroy the Jewish people. This has been a recurring theme ever since Biblical times, whether we were living in our own land or as a barely-tolerated minority in other countries. Today, when we finally have a country of our own once more, we must not lose sight of the need to remain strong in order to survive. But neither can we allow ourselves to lose sight of our humanity in the process.