Yet another NY Times article about the Nazi genocide. It comes on the heels of the April issue of The Atlantic atop a pile of magazines on my desk as I write. The cover in gloomy gray tones and shadows features a three-dimensional Star of David with deep cracks and provocatively asks: “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” That’s the title of the lead article by Jeffrey Goldberg. If you want to know how Goldberg answers the question, you’ll have to read the article. The point here is that “U.S. Americans” can easily get the wrong impression. Genocide is NOT the unique in the modern world. Hitler didn’t invent it. The crime of genocide plays a major role in the birth, growth, and development of the United States of America.
Let’s be clear from the outset: What happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and dozens of other Nazi death camps is beyond evil. Hannah Arendt’s insight about the “banality” of something so demonic reveals the sheer incomprehensibility of it. It’s effective precisely because it’s shocking to think that something like genocide can be banal. In the face of a shocking reality, we need to be shocked. How can anyone who has not experienced such a monstrous evil directly be made to understand the moral and spiritual void necessary to explain how not one megalomaniacal mass murderer, but a whole well-oiled, mass-murder machine involving legions of active, willing participants is possible?
The Times article focuses on the trial of Oskar Gröning, the 93-year-old “accountant of Auschwitz,” which began last week in the German city of Lüneburg: “Mr. Gröning is charged with complicity in the murder of at least 300,000 people. At least once during the summer of 1944, according to his accusers, when thousands of Hungarian Jews arrived by cattle car at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he stood at the exit ramp, watching as the passengers were divided into those to be put into forced labor and those to be killed instantly.”
The writer, by the way, is German, and she clearly has a bad conscience, even though she bears no personal guilt or responsibility for what happened decades before she was born. About the trial, she writes:
It is one of the last chances we will have to hear the victims and seek justice from someone who actually participated in the Holocaust. The rapid disappearance of the “Zeitzeugen,” the contemporary witnesses — both survivors and perpetrators — will change how we Germans think about ourselves. Especially the perpetrators; in a bizarre way, we will miss them when they’re gone.
I’ve just finished reading a shocking book about genocide. I was struck by this observation, and especially by one other passage I quote below. That reaction led to question. First the quote, then the question.
THE QUOTE: “We must find a new narrative, a new way to ensure “never again.” Not through ideology, but through action — for example by more generously helping the refugees that seek asylum in our country. Instead of trying to transfer a vague feeling of inherited guilt to yet another generation, we should change from remembering what we must never forget to knowing why.”
THE QUESTION: Given the VITAL importance of remembering what the Nazis did to the Jews AND OTHERS in the World War II era, why is it virtually NEVER MENTIONED in all the many Holocaust stories, articles, books, and movies (most recently, “The Women in Gold” starring Helen Mirren) that U.S. presidents and generals and soldiers and settlers COMMITTED GENOCIDE against NATIVE AMERICAN populations on a massive scale starting in the 17th century and continuing with a vengeance through the 19th century? Don’t believe it? Get your hands on a copy Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s book – An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States – and read it. I dare you.
Are we to believe that there was only one instance of genocide in modern history? That, say, what the Turks did to the Armenians during the other “world war” of the 20th Century isn’t equally reprehensible, worthy of condemnation, and important to remember? Or that the decimation of Indigenous peoples and the expropriation of vast land and resources (the buffalo, yes, but much, much more) by force of arms (raiding, burning, killing, looting, “relocation”, and the like) is somehow justifiable because it happened here and we (the white, middle class majority of European ancestry) are reaping the benefits? Not to mention the enslavement of African-Americans forcibly brought to this land as chattels in the process of committing not one genocide but a whole series of genocides against Indigenous peoples the killers and settlers (often the same) called “savages”.
As with slavery, we (if the shoe fits…) didn’t commit these crimes and we can’t make it right. But to erase the history of the wrong that was done is to compound and implicitly condone it. At the very least, we can take a page out of Germany’s playbook and stop pretending it didn’t happen.