|Do we have the courage to stop anti-Semitism’s rise once again?|
By David Von Drehle
Jan. 24, 2020 at 5:57 p.m. EST
The plan was for no one to be there.
In mid-January of 1945, as winter raked and froze the Polish countryside, German commanders ordered one last ruthless culling of prisoners at the Auschwitz death factory and the slave camps surrounding it. With Soviet troops advancing furiously from the east, slaves who might still be of use to their Nazi tormentors were marched westward in rags under some of the worst conditions of that unspeakable time. The rest —those judged too weak to begin the death march, the tortured twins and other subjects of Josef Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments and so on — were to be shot.
But by then all the ghoulish efficiency of Auschwitz was gone. There had been flowers in the window boxes of buildings on the way to the gas chambers, because the blooms tended to calm the fears of the doomed. There had been teams of prisoners trained — it was this or be killed — to drag corpses from the kill rooms to the crematoria. There had been officers to assure their soldiers that savagery in wartime is glorious, or at least mandatory.
In other words, there had been a machinery of slaughter to deal with such orders from on high. But with the Red Army’s guns booming ever closer, the Auschwitz death machine broke down. The remaining Germans scattered without finishing their work. And on Jan. 27, soldiers from the First Ukrainian Front marched up to find some 7,000 prisoners alive to tell the story of the more than 1 million murders.
The liberation of Auschwitz is the first of many important 75th-anniversary milestones the world will mark in the coming months. Seventy-five years is not just a momentous number. It is the horizon of living memory. The burning of Dresden and of Tokyo, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the death of Roosevelt, the suicide of Hitler, the surrender of Germany, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the capitulation of Japan’s emperor-god. The ranks of people old enough to have witnessed the final throes of the world’s deadliest catastrophe are dwindling daily, marching into the past.
When the last of them cross into history, these memories, and the meaning of these events, will be kept alive only by acts of will and conscious choices. Who will choose to spend time with such ugliness and sorrow? To confront what happened, to admit it and learn from it, requires one to linger in the dank recesses of the human soul, to stare at things that decency normally ignores.
Who, indeed. According to Human Rights Watch, 75 years after Auschwitz “rising anti-Semitism in Europe has become impossible to ignore.” More than 8 in 10 Jews in a cross-section of Western European countries believe anti-Jewish bias has surged from the shadows to be a major issue again. Last year, a German government official warned Jewish men not to wear their religious head coverings in public because of the risk of verbal and physical assaults. Britain’s venerable socialist Jewish Labour Movement last year broke with the Labour Party over the “pool of poison” — anti-Semitism — infecting the nation’s leading leftists.
Meanwhile, in the United States, high-profile hate crimes such as the attack on a kosher market in New Jersey and the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue embody a steep increase in all sorts of anti-Semitic behavior, from taunts and graffiti to murder. Nearly 9 of every 10 American Jews sees anti-Jewish bias in this country as a problem, according to a poll commissioned by the American Jewish Committee. “This hatred is real, comes from multiple sources, and is growing,” the AJC’s chief executive, David Harris, has said.
This appalling recrudescence can be explained only by a widespread failure to remember and to learn. Along with rampant demagoguery, conspiracy-mongering and us-against-them politics, the rise of anti-Semitism in the West gives our day a queasy 1930s vibe.
Among the Auschwitz prisoners who survived to greet the Soviet liberators was an Italian Jew named Primo Levi. His training as a chemist had made him useful as a slave at the IG Farben factory next door to the death camp. He certainly would have been selected to march off into the deadly winter, but a case of scarlet fever kept him in the miserable barracks. He preserved the memory of Auschwitz in such masterpieces as “ If This Is a Man” and “ The Periodic Table.”
And he taught a clear and simple lesson. “It happened,” he testified, “therefore it can happen again.” The challenge is ours, 75 years later, to learn Levi’s lesson and to pass it on. Have we enough will, enough courage, enough love — and enough fear of human weakness — to do so?
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.
Michael Gerson: Rising anti-Semitism is a sign of America’s declining health
Jonathan Greenblatt: One year after the Tree of Life attack, anti-Semitism is still on the rise — and social media isn’t helping
Jennifer Rubin: Trump shows us again what he thinks of Jews
George F. Will: An exhibit on Auschwitz reminds us of political regression in the world today
Marc A. Thiessen: The rise of anti-Semitism on the left