FIFTY YEARS AGO, they keep saying. Fifty years ago, Auschwitz was liberated. Fifty years ago, the Nazis were defeated. Fifty years ago, the survivors emerged from the ash and bones and hell of the death camps. Fifty years ago, the world, sickened to discover how unspeakably deep and black was the abyss into which one of the most cultured nations on earth had systematically ground up 6 million Jews, swore: Never again. Fifty years ago, the Holocaust ended.
Fifty years ago.
In the Cleveland synagogue I grew up in, there was a woman named Esther, a survivor of the camps. Over the years I watched her mind slowly disassemble, pulled apart by memories too violent to endure. She would burst into shouts during the rabbi's sermon and madly rush to kiss the Torah scroll as it was carried to the ark. When charity appeals were made from the pulpit, she would wave in the air, of all things, Czechoslovak stamps, crying out that she had something of great value to donate. I got hold of one of those stamps once and looked it up in a catalog. It was worthless.
When, exactly, did the Holocaust end for Esther?
In the same synagogue was a man called B--, an envelope maker who had no children and who we all somehow knew never would. What B-- lost in the camps wasn't his life, but something even more precious: all hope of giving life. During the war, he had been sterilized in one of Dr. Mengele's sadistic experiments.
When did his Holocaust end?
When did my father's?
On May 7, 1945, the concentration camp at Ebensee, an Austrian town between Linz and Salzburg, was abandoned by its Nazi guards. Among the Jews not yet dead in that place was my father. He was 19 years old, he weighed 65 pounds, and he was nearly gone with starvation and typhoid fever. Thirteen months and three camps earlier, on his first day in Auschwitz, he had seen his parents sent to the gas chamber, along with his 10-year-old brother Yrvin and his little sister Alice, who was 8. My father's teen-age brother Zoltan was murdered a few days later; his older sister Franceska by the following spring.
When the Nazis fled Ebensee on that May morning 50 years ago, my father was left with nothing but the rags he was wearing and a greenish-blue tattoo on his arm: A-10502.
And feelings of guilt that have lasted for decades.
"I had dreams and nightmares about what happened," he said to me once. "I always feel sort of guilty, even until now, about not protecting my younger brother. I was with him together for a just a few hours; then we were separated. I wonder -- could I have insisted that he stay with me? I don't know. Coming from a farm, I was naive. I was not sophisticated."
Between 1940 and 1945, it was a central aim of the German Reich to exterminate every Jew in Europe -- to bring about, once and for all, a "Final Solution" to the Jewish "problem." To carry out this policy, which was given a higher priority than even the war effort, the Nazis constructed a vast and elaborate machinery, employing tens of thousands of people and requiring the most detailed and complicated logistics. It was an industry whose raw material was Jews, which it imported from lands as far-flung as Greece and Norway, and whose final product was Jewish corpses, or the greasy smoke of Jewish corpses. To ensure its success, the Nazis drew on all the resources of wealth, science, engineering, transportation and manpower at their command.
And my father has felt guilty for 50 years because he didn't know how to save his brother.
Has his Holocaust ended?
I mistrust this number, this 50. It seems too definitive a milestone, too complete, too over-and-done-with. When I hear the words "ended 50 years ago," it seems to me I also hear: "Enough already." "Let it go." "It's history."
On an NPR broadcast two weeks ago, an articulate skinhead named Tracy Gilson was asked why he has Hitler's face tattooed on his neck.
"The Holocaust," replied the young man, who became a skinhead at 13. "You know what? If it did happen, good. I don't care. I'm glad. I really -- that's good. That's great. Swell, good. Kill 6 million more, somebody, please. . . . I wish somebody would do that here, freakin' decide that they need to get rid of all the trash and start building death camps. That would be fine with me."
The Holocaust didn't end 50 years ago; it was only suspended. What separates us from 8-year-old girls gulping death in gas chambers is nothing more than a thin veneer of civilization, stretched like a bandage over a bleeding wound, capable of being stripped away in a twinkling. Germany is the land of Bach and Durer and Goethe, after all. Yet how readily it became the land of Buchenwald and crematoria and pits filled with naked, machine-gunned Jews.
There is nothing so evil, so demonic, that people cannot be induced to do it, or to look the other way while it is being done. Not only storm troops and skinheads. Nice people. Cultured people. People like us.
Fifty years ago, the Holocaust was suspended. How long it stays suspended depends on how long we remember to never forget. Fifty years after the spring of 1945, when even those who survived are almost all gone and wildflowers grow where dead parents and dead children were once piled high, we need to remember more urgently than ever.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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