Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Virginia Holocaust Museum at 10

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published my letter this morning. However, the editors made some changes that subtracted from the message I was trying to convey. Further, since there may be some people outside the publishing range of our great metropolitan daily who read my rantings, I shall exercise my editorial discretion and publish the whole thing.

"Thank you for your editorial today, “An Anniversary,” acknowledging the important work being done by the Virginia Holocaust Museum. However, by prefacing your congratulations with several paragraphs describing current instances of anti-Jewish sentiment in the world, you portray the Nazi Holocaust and the ten years of work by the Museum as exclusively Jewish issues. They are not.

"Certainly the event we call the Holocaust was a disaster of unprecedented proportions for the Jewish people. Approximately six million Jews, including more than one and a half million children, were murdered by the German Nazi regime and its allies. It is also alarming that today so many people still express such animosity toward Jews. However, the Holocaust was a disaster for others in Nazi-controlled Europe. Millions of other “undesirables”—Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally or physically handicapped—were murdered by the Nazis.

"In addition to being a Jewish issue, the Holocaust is a Christian issue. It is an unfortunate fact that the many thousands who participated directly in the murders and the millions of bystanders who either watched without protest or cheered the elimination of the Jews from their area of Europe were born and raised as Christians. Christians today must still address the question of how worshippers of a God of Love could have acted with such hatred towards Jews and others.

"The Holocaust is still an ongoing issue for the whole world. It is another unfortunate fact that since the end of World War II millions of defenseless humans have been “eliminated” by various regimes throughout the world in the interest of racial or ethnic or religious or political purity. We need to recognize that either through evolution or by intelligent design we humans are a very violent species. We have been endowed by our creator, or by the accident of natural selection, with a very powerful sense of xenophobia. This allows us to carry out rather nasty acts against “them” in defense of “us.”

"Finally, the Holocaust is an issue for you and me. Another of those unfortunate facts is that most of the Nazi murderers were “normal” people. How is it that someone can machinegun or shove hundreds of people into execution chambers during the day and then go home and have a normal dinner that night? It is very comforting to think that only very evil people can commit such terrible crimes. However, history shows that under certain circumstances ordinary people like you and I can be persuaded to perpetrate acts of unspeakable cruelty against our fellow humans."

You may ask, why this waste of bits and bytes when anyone can read the edited letter in the TD? Maven, is your ego so big that you can’t tolerate a little editing?

I must confess that my ego often is too big for my own good. But, this is not just a matter of the pride of authorship. The TD version misses some important issues I was trying to address.

First, the TD left out the next-to-last paragraph, highlighted above. We, as humans, especially with the power and sophistication of our weapons systems, need to realize that we have been programmed to defend our own tribe against the “other.” Perhaps, hundreds of thousands of years ago, this trait helped our ancestors to survive. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, this inborn xenophobia (Fear and hatred of foreigners—Webster’s English Dictionary), has led to the brutal murders of tens of millions of our fellow humans. We need to know that all of us have inherited this trait and must guard against demagogic leaders who exploit this trait by urging us to purge our society of this or that group of “undesirables.” This is the most important lesson we need to learn from the Holocaust. Unfortunately, since genocide continues unabated in the world, it is clear that this lesson has still not sunken in.

Second, the TD has made a few language changes that have affected the meaning of my original letter. In one sentence in the last paragraph I asked how someone could “machinegun or shove hundreds of people into execution chambers” and go home to a normal dinner at night. The TD took out my graphic description of what the Holocaust murderers actually did and substituted the word “execute.” This is not just a matter of using a euphemism. I have read diaries of Holocaust perpetrators and they often refer to the killings they did as “executions.” One of the definitions of “execute” in Webster’s English Dictionary is “to put to death in compliance with a legal sentence.” It may have given perpetrators comfort to think that they were merely carrying out government policy. However, the people they killed were murdered, not executed.

Finally, by leaving out the little word “however,” the TD editor weakened the concluding sentences of the letter. All of us assume that only certain “evil” people could perpetrate genocide. You and I know that we are basically good people and could “never” commit atrocities. By blaming genocide on evil people, we can avoid considering what we are capable of doing. The history that the Virginia Holocaust Museum teaches us, however, shows that it is possible for “ordinary” people, like you and me, to carry out terribly evil acts.

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