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David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Why don’t you believe your eyes? (Vayera)

The bottom line is that, as long as those murdered, tortured, and mutilated are Jews (and non-Jewish Israelis), many people don't mind all that much
Witold Pilecki, Auschwitz inmate photo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Witold Pilecki, Auschwitz inmate photo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Witold Pilecki is one of the bravest people I’ve ever written about in these blogs. He was a Polish patriot and a Catholic who volunteered to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz, to learn firsthand of the horrors taking place there so the entire world could find out about it. On September 19, 1940, he said goodbye to his wife and children and, using the false name of Tomasz Serafiński, went out to the street after curfew, and joined a Nazis roundup. On September 21, at 10 p.m. (according to his report), he arrived and, “Since that moment we became mere numbers. The official name read as following: ‘Schutzhäftling kr…xy…’ I wore the number 4859.”

Pilecki spent the next three years smuggling out reports to the Polish resistance networks, who passed it on to governments around the world.

When he arrived in Auschwitz, there were not yet gas chambers. But within a year, the Nazis began experimenting with the most efficient way to gas prisoners and cremate their bodies.

Pilecki reported on the Nazi experiments for mass murder:

As lately as in August (1941) this new war had here, as all other matters, a macabre repercussion. The first Bolshevik prisoners were delivered here, officers only, and locked up in one room of block 13… in the amount of over seven hundred persons, they stood so tightly packed that nobody was able to sit down. The room was sealed (there were no gas chambers at that time).

In the evening, on the same day, there came a group of German military men with officers at the head. The German commission entered the room and, having put on gas masks, threw about several cans of gas, while observing its effect… People were so packed that they were unable to fall in the moment of their death. Leaning one against another, they had their hands so interlaced that it was difficult to tear their bodies from one another. They were to be superior ranks only, of various formations, to judge by the uniforms in which they were gassed.

This was the first test of gas here.

Pilecki’s journals make horrific reading, as they report firsthand on what he witnessed in the camp. He wrote about the construction of the gas chambers and new crematoria:

New transports were gassed in the rate of over one thousand victims a day. The dead bodies were burnt in the new crematoriums.

His other task, while in the notorious concentration camp, was to boost the morale of the prisoners, prepare them to take over the camp if the allies attacked it and smuggle in news of the world. By 1943, he even had a radio and began transmitting the horrors he saw.

Cover of ‘The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland’ including firsthand testimony from Witold Pilecki. (Public Domain/archive.org)

He smuggled out his diaries so the world would know what was going on. As early as 1940, he began sending back reports. In April 1942, an Auschwitz inmate named Stefan Bielecki managed to escape and brought a full report from Pilecki to the Polish resistance. Then, In April 1943, Witold Pilecki himself escaped, along with two other prisoners, Jan Redzej, and Edward Ciesielski. All Pilecki’s reports were sent to the Polish resistance, and from there, they made their way to London and Washington DC.

And the world was horrified. We sometimes think that the West did not know the true horrors of the Holocaust until it was too late or refused to believe the reports they received. But that was clearly not the case.

A precursor to the United Nations, made up of 11 nations, wrote a report on the atrocities committed against Jews by the Nazis. It was read out in British parliament and published on the front page of the New York Times and many other newspapers on December 18, 1942. It read, in part:

From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported in conditions of appalling horror and brutality to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettos established by the German invader are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few highly skilled workers required for war industries. None of those taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodied are slowly worked to death in labor camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions. The number of victims of these bloody cruelties is reckoned in many hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women and children.

Boston Globe, December 17, 1942. (Public Domain/ Newspapers.com)

After he escaped from Auschwitz, Pilecki went on to fight against the Nazis in the Warsaw uprising. On October 2, 1944, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he remained until the end of World War II.

Witold Pilecki during his trial. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

After the war, he continued to fight for an independent Poland, until he was arrested by the Communists, on May 8, 1947. And on May 25, 1948, aged just 47, he was executed.

So, the world knew. It was front page news in every city in the United States. And yet, the allies refused to act. Why? How? How was it possible for people to read about “hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent men, women and children” and remain unmoved?

I can think of only two possible explanations. Either, despite the government-sanctioned reports and front-page news, people still refused to believe the scale of the atrocities. Or people don’t care when genocide is perpetrated against Jews.

Detail of memorial to Witold Pilecki. (CC BY-SA, Mateusz Opasiński/ Wikimedia Commons)

It is certainly true that massacres nowadays in Africa get far less coverage than, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Very few people are protesting in the streets about Pakistan’s threat to deport 1.4 million Afghan refugees by November 1. So many have conveniently forgotten about the one million ethnic Uyghurs, who were rounded up by China and put in “reeducation” camps.

It says a lot about individuals and a nation when we see which kind of people they care about. And the people the Nazis were exterminating from 1942 to 1945 were Jews, homosexuals, Catholics, gypsies, and other “undesirables.”

As David Baddiel pointed out in his book “Jews Don’t Count,” Jews manage to be both an undesirable minority AND a powerful oppressing group at the same time. Concerns expressed by liberals for other minority groups are not afforded to Jews.

It seems to me that the reason people did not protest in the streets of Washington and London during the Holocaust, and the reason the Allies did not even try to stop the genocide was not because of a lack of knowledge. But rather because, even if they would not admit it publicly, most people were not so upset by Hitler’s Final Solution.

Contemporary polls of Americans show a high level of antisemitic sentiment. Leonard Dimmerstein refers to a series of Gallop surveys where pollsters asked people, “Do you think Jews have too much power in the United States?” The results show that while Jews were being gassed by the Nazis, American hostility to Jews continued to rise.

March, 1938 41%
April, 1940 43%
February, 1941 45%
October, 1941 48%
May 1944, 56%
June, 1945 58%
February, 1946 55%

Another survey, described in JTA on February 7, 1946, found that antisemitism did not lessen, even as greater knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust came to light.

The growth of anti-Semitism in the United States appears to have been halted, but there has been no appreciable decrease in anti-Semitism in the past two years, according to a survey by Elmo Roper appearing in the February issue of Fortune magazine. Of those polled, 8.8 percent can be classified as anti-Semites on the basis of their replies to two key questions, the survey shows.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, God tells Abraham about the wickedness of the people of Sodom. Yet, even when he hears it directly from God, Abraham refused to believe it is true. He bargains with God – maybe there are 50 righteous people in the city, maybe 45, maybe 40. It turns out there were not even 10 righteous people. Abraham’s genuine concern for innocent civilians is touching. But misplaced. Only after it was confirmed to him, time and again, did Abraham accept the word of God and stop praying for Sodom.

We can perhaps understand Abraham. His entire life was dedicated to helping others and caring about them Even when God Himself says that there are no good people in Sodom, Abraham simply cannot believe it. Some kind of cognitive dissonance allows him to both trust the word of God and yet reject it when it goes against his core values.

Yet in the end, even Abraham had to admit that the atrocities of Sodom were so evil that there could be no rehabilitation. All God could do was save Lot and those family members who trusted him.

There is no comparison between Sodom, where God destroyed the entire city, and Gaza, where the Israeli army is going everything it can to minimalize civilian deaths, despite the fact that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Nevertheless, there is a parallel between Abraham’s inability to accept the truth and current responses to the barbaric acts perpetrated by Hamas terrorists.

For years, I’ve thought that if people understood the unbelievable harm Hamas had done to the Palestinian people, they would continue to support Palestinians, but not Hamas. If the world only knew that the reason there is mass poverty in Gaza is not primarily because of Israel’s blockade, but because Hamas takes the fuel and the money to build its rockets. If only people knew that one of the main Hamas terror command centers is built under the main Shifa hospital in Gaza City, they would understand that Hamas commits war crimes on a daily basis. That if the West saw the barbaric behavior of the Hamas terror organization, they would admit this is not a viable future for the Palestinians of Gaza and would seek alternatives.

But now that Hamas itself has admitted to committing barbaric atrocities, now that Hamas has shared video clips of atrocities I cannot even bring myself to write, it should be clear who Hamas is.

It turns out that it wasn’t a lack of information that shaped people’s opinions, however. It must be that, deep down, they do not believe that Jews should exist. If Hamas can continue the work of Hitler and massacre thousands, yet people take to the street in their masses, supporting the terror group and condemning the Jewish state, it is not because of a lack of knowledge. It is the latent antisemitism within them. I cannot think of any other explanation.

Almost every day, I call my Palestinian friends to check they are okay. I genuinely care about them. But the world doesn’t. The protesters chanting “From the river to the sea Palestine must be free” envisage a globe without Israel, without Jews. I do not believe they care about real Palestinians living here.

Access to the internet was supposed to make us all smarter by giving us greater access to facts and news. However, there are some facts that certain people just do not want to accept. When push comes to shove, if it is Jews (and non-Jewish Israelis) being murdered, a lot of people choose to be on the side of evil.

My next series for WebYeshiva is entitled “Rabbis on the Moon” and begins on Tuesday, October 31. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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