Remembering the Holocaust

Apr 25, 2017 by

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On a recent trip to Minnesota, I happened to stumble upon a second-hand toy and collectible store among the small shops in downtown Albert Lea. Upon entering the store, I was stunned by the amount of toys and dolls of all kinds piled high in every possible square inch of the shop, leaving a narrow walkway for customers to wind their way through to the end. I have never seen so many Barbies, Raggedy Anns, Madame Alexanders and other kinds of dolls amassed from floor to ceiling anywhere else. At least not in a thrift store.

What came to my mind after viewing that unusually large collection was not something most folks would imagine. Although I have never been there in person, I thought about all the piles and piles of toys stolen from the murdered children at Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps. As a student of modern European history, I have seen many disturbing newsreels pertaining to the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe. But nothing seemed so utterly sad as the deliberate, pre-meditated mass murder of almost two million infants, toddlers and school-age children simply because of their Jewish faith.

With April 27 designated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is fitting to remember the countless, innocent victims of prejudice, greed and hate. Living in this country, in these times, it is hard to fathom how a family could be enjoying a dinner together, or be peacefully asleep in their bedrooms, only to have their home invaded, and be violently dragged off to suffer and die at the hands of their fellow human beings whose delusions of superiority gave them the free reign to do as they pleased to others. Two out of three Jewish people in occupied Europe did not survive the Hitler regime. For every Corrie Ten Boom who rescued the perishing, there were many more who either did nothing, or who swooped in to steal the property of those people, their own neighbors, who were taken away, almost all to never return. Europe needed thousands of Corrie Ten Booms.

Even after years of study, it is still hard to understand how a continent such as Europe, with centuries of exposure to Christianity, could tolerate and even actively support any kind of prejudice and hatred based on ethnicity or religion. How could Germany, that brought forth Goethe, Beethoven, Schweitzer and Einstein, descend to the utter depths of evil by following Hitler and providing the labor and materials needed for the mass murder of millions of human beings? How could thousands of citizens of many European countries actively and even eagerly participate in this monstrous endeavor?

Europe is dotted with many grandiose cathedrals, built as wondrously ornate places to worship God, yet the hearts of the people were not filled with the love of God. God’s command to “love others as I have loved you” went unheeded in the 20th-century death camps of Europe. It was not heard by the millions who pledged their allegiance to an evil dictator rather than to God. It was not heard by the individuals who pulled the triggers, operated the trains and delivered the poison gas. It was not heard by those who turned away and shut their doors, because it did not affect them. It was not heard by the countries who rejected desperate refugees, denying them entry to freedom, safety and life.

The study of the Holocaust is not for the faint-at-heart. So much material is out there of eyewitness accounts of survival, and heartbreaking stories of loss of family members. This information is necessary so that people know what happened and can learn from history.

But what has the world learned? It is terribly sad that there is still anti-Semitism and all other kinds of prejudice in our century. What does this mean for the Christian? When innocent people are bullied, do we turn away because they are not part of our group? Is the instinct of self-preservation greater than the command of God to love others? Real Christianity is not without risk. If we were in a position that could jeopardize our lives but would save the lives of children in need of rescue, how would we respond? What would Christ want us to do? Too many did not stand against evil in the past, and many innocent people suffered. Let us pray it never happens again as we remember the six million victims of the Holocaust, including so many babies and children.

Nancy Zehr lives in Van Meter, Iowa, and attends Des Moines (Iowa) Mennonite Church.


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