It Didn’t Start in the Gas Chamber

It Didn’t Start in the Gas Chamber

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The day of liberation for Auschwitz. A week or so ago I had come across a website that had taken several publicly shared photos from around the web of people jumping, laughing, or crassly posing at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The selfies had been juxtaposed with images from the actual holocaust, similar to the ones below. All of the photos have since been taken down, but the site can still be viewed here:

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the photos.

Just a collection of emaciated bodies, limbs bent and twisted into something freakish, unnatural. A horror movie set. My mind wants to protect me, wants to pretend it’s just fake bodies spread out for a shoot. Bodies of rubber and plastic.

But I know that’s not true. I know each body was a life once. A person with hopes and dreams. A soul that loved and laughed and wept. A mother, father, aunt. Someone’s child, someone’s friend.

My heart doesn’t know what to do. It wants to be protected, to be insulated against such atrocities. I want to imagine only an animal could discard lives with such flippancy. Surely only someone without a soul, who hated all life, could destroy so many souls. But even these people were only human too. Many truly did hate. Some chose to go along to save their own families. Some were blinded by nationalism and belief that they were doing a good thing and protecting society.

Dr. Fritz Klein, center, who selected prisoners to be sent to the gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, was forced to move bodies to a mass grave after the camp was liberated by the British in April, 1945. Sixty thousand prisoners, most of them seriously ill, were found in the camp along with thousands of unburied corpses. Klein was later tried and hanged. (AP Photo)

I’d always imagined I would have been a ten Boom, risking my own life and safety to protect the vulnerable. I’d always thought it would be a no-brainer. Of course the church I knew and loved would become a safe haven for the abused, the marginalized, the hunted. But there was one key element I didn’t realize until recently. In order to be a “ten Boom”, I needed to be able to recognize when that help was needed. I needed to be able to see the signs, to identify the kind of language that could lead to mass destruction of people groups.

You’d think it was simple. In hindsight, the hateful speech is obvious, the prejudice blatant and easily identifiable. But when you are in the middle of such a society, it is not so easy to set aside one’s own prejudices and desire for safety and comfort in favor of reaching out and protecting another.

What happened during the holocaust was not simply a mass group of wicked people overpowering everyone else. What happened was sanctioned, accepted, and allowed by good people. People who didn’t really want to harm anyone, but felt Jews were enough of a threat that of course they should be taken to camps for the protection of the rest of society. After all, there were videos of the camps, and they didn’t seem so bad. It was easy to believe the propaganda they were fed, easy to turn a blind eye to the truth.

Anne Frank (1929-1945). (Photo by Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

We love the diary of Anne Frank. We love to get a glimpse into her life, to better understand the horrors one single family endured. The fear. The glimmer of hope that eventually proved to be in vain. Yet we forget that even that family, those parents and their two teen daughters, were denied asylum in America. As much as we love her now, and imagine we’d have done everything possible to rescue her from that situation… would we, really?

Because we didn’t.

When our own safety and comfort is in question, it is often too easy to dismiss the concerns of others. Especially when the others are “dangerous”. They are no longer individuals, humans with families and souls and uniqueness. They are a part of “the dangerous group” and that means they must be controlled, that locking them up or ignoring their pleas for help is a benefit to society. They are just a body.

Just a body.

A few of the thousands of wedding rings the Nazis removed from their victims to salvage the gold. U.S. troops found rings, watches, precious stones, eyeglasses, and gold fillings, near the Buchenwald concentration camp. Germany, May 5, 1945. –

This doesn’t start with death camps and gas chambers. It doesn’t start with a wicked group taking over in force and destroying everything good and holy. It starts with complacency. It starts with words and attitudes. It starts with justifying abuse and leads to justifying mass annihilation because of a perceived threat. It started when the good people sat back and thanked god that they were safe, they were protected, they didn’t need to worry about being torn apart from their families.

Today, tomorrow, and forever I say, never again. Never again.

3 thoughts on “It Didn’t Start in the Gas Chamber

  1. Such a great reminder. My great grandmother was a Jew that got out of Germany as Hitler was rising to power. Not all of her family was so lucky.

  2. This really rings true in today’s political environment. The past is making a return. What will we do this time.

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