Monthly Archives: April 2019

Ordinary Men and Genocide: Massacre at Babi Yar

babi yar

Massacre at Babi Yar

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Anyone who follows my writing know I write a lot about the Holocaust and the war crimes perpetuated by the Nazi State. I began studying this as an undergraduate and graduate level history student at California State University at Northridge under Dr. Helmut Heussler, who served as a wartime interrogator for the 82nd Airborne Division during the Second World War and then as an interpreter at the Major War Crime trials at Nuremberg.  I studied under him for three years dealing with the end of Imperial Germany, the German Civil War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore and research the subject and allowed me to do that research in undergraduate and graduate level independent study projects. I continued that study personally as well as during seminary and my second Master’s Degree in Military History.

Since I read, speak and write German well and can often pass myself off as German in Germany because of my lack of an American accent when speaking the language. I speak German with a blend of a Bavarian and Hessen dialect and that helps when I visit various Holocaust sites, museums, and research centers in Germany. I will be doing some of that again this fall when I make another trip to Munich, Hessen, and Baden-Wurttemberg. About a year ago I spent five hours at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. contemplating things that I mostly already knew while exploring details of the Holocaust that made it more real and personal.

As part of my academic work at the Joint Forces Staff College I taught military ethics as related to the Just War Theory. In the class on jus post bellum or justice after war I dealt with the implication of participating in war crimes. It is a serious subject and in the class I attempted to make my students, all relatively senior officers from the United States and allied nations as uncomfortable as possible. I used a number of examples from the major war crimes trials at Nuremberg as well as the Generals Trial and I used the film Conspiracy, which is about the Wannsee Conference where mostly mid-level officers and bureaucrats hashed out the coordination of the Endlosung or Final Solution to what Nazis euphemistically called “the Jewish Question.” 

When I was teaching there I would go through previous notes and research to teach my students. Whenever I did this I felt a tenseness and revulsion for the actions of those that ordered, committed or condoned these crimes; many of whom were like me, professional military officers, historians, and theologians. So I realize how easily it is for normal, rational, and even basically decent people to succumb to either participating in or turning a blind eye to crimes against others, even on a massive scale.  In fact the bigger those crimes are they seem easier for some people to dismiss, because the victims cease be human, and simply a statistic. Sadly, Josef Stalin probably got human nature right when he said “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That comment causes great revulsion in my soul, but I have to admit it seems to be the way that many people deal with such great crimes.

September 29th 2018 was the 77th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It was committed by members of the SS Einsatzgruppen C near Kiev shortly after the German Army captured that city. 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as members of a number of Ordungspolizei, police battalions supported by the logistics and protection of the German Army. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. It was the second largest killing action by the various Einsatzgruppen in the war. The killings were done up close and personal. The men who conducted the operation either believed that the people that they were killing were sub-human, or did not have the courage to stand up and say no.

These issues are still with us and as I watch the rise of Right Wing and other Fascist movements in Russia, Europe, and the United States I get very concerned. But even more concerning are the large number of people who are content to dismiss their threats and violence, often because while too respectable to utter their words themselves they secretly condone their race hatred. Hannah Arendt made the comment that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Of course these are uncomfortable subjects. When I tell friends of the places that I have visited and studies I have done quite a few openly tell me that they find the subject so uncomfortable hat they could not visit those places. These friends span the political spectrum, just as did the people who said nothing or willingly followed orders to commit genocide in Nazi Germany.

We like to say that the Nazis were different than us or others. To some extent this is true, but the real truth is that most of the Christian Western European countries, and I include the United States have also committed gross crimes against humanity against peoples that we believed were less than human and not afforded human rights or protections. In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg Spencer Tracy makes a comment that should send chills through any of us. He spoke concerning one of the judges on trial, “Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination….”

What happened at Babi Yar is just one example of how civilized people can get can commit great atrocities in the name of ideology and race, and it does not stand alone. The tragic fact is that it really doesn’t take much to condition people to go commit such crimes; just teach people from childhood that people of certain races or religions are less than human. Then subjugate them to incessant propaganda and then turn them loose using the pretext that they are killing terrorists, insurgents, or other enemies of the state. Dr Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

The coming series of articles deal with the ideological as well as military reasons that brought about Babi Yar and so many other atrocities committed by the Nazis during the campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union. I will probably intersperse other articles as the need arises but there will be five more sections to this series.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed over the past two years anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed in the United States. The attacks on two synagogues in the United States have been attacked by neo-Nazis in the past six months is just the beginning. Thousands of other incidents have taken place, physical attacks, harassment, and vandalism of synagogues, Jewish schools, and cemeteries.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, holocaust, nazi germany, Political Commentary, White nationalism, world war two in europe

Camarón: The Epic Stand of the Foreign Legion Still Honored by Mexico

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is the 156th anniversary of the sacrifice of the men of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion Of the French Foreign Legion at Camarón. The war that they were fighting was in an unjust cause launched by Emperor Napoleon III to gain control of Mexico, but that takes nothing away from their heroism, heroism that even their opponents honor today. Seldom are the exploits of the soldiers of an imperialist conquering power honored by those who fought against them, but this is one of those rare exceptions.

Lieutenant Clement Maudet Leads Surviving Legionnaires in a Final Charge

Almost every Army or nation has a story of a heroic group of soldiers that fight valiantly and often die against enemies of far greater strength and quite often in unjust causes. The United States has the Texan defenders of the Alamo and Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn. The British have a number of such exploits, including that of their soldiers at the Battle of Rourke’s Drift in the Zulu War. The Germans have the nearly 300,000 men of the 6th Army lost at Stalingrad, and the dying Soviet Union had the 9th Company of the Red Army’s 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment which conducted a heroic defense against Afghan Mujahideen at Hill 3234 during Operation Magistral in 1989. All of their causes were unjust, but the gallantry and sacrifice of so many of these soldiers was undeniable, even to their opponents.

However, seldom are “the few” honored by friend and foe alike for more than a century after their defeat. Among these few, these gallant few, are the 65 men of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion Légion Étrangère (Foreign Legion). These few would battle nearly 2000 Mexican Soldiers at a small Hacienda called Camarón on April 30th 1863 while proving an advance guard escort to a supply convoy which was to relieve French forces besieging Puebla.

Captain Jean Danjou

The 3rd Company was severely undermanned due to dysentery and when they went into battle 50 Legionnaires and all of the company officers were incapacitated.  The battalion Quartermaster, Captain Danjou took command and was joined by two other officers, Lieutenant Clement Maudet and Lieutenant Jean Villian to lead the remaining 62 Legionnaires on their mission to a tragic destiny.

Beginning their March at 0100 they had marched 15 miles before stopping for breakfast at 0700. While brewing their coffee with the convoy which was now several hours behind schedule, scouts from the company saw a force of several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching.  They fought a battle with the cavalry for several hours before retreating to the Hacienda around the middle of the morning.

The Mexican forces under the command of Colonel Francisco Milan were joined by additional infantry and cavalry and now numbered over 2000 men, 800 cavalrymen and 1200 infantrymen. Milan’s Forces outnumbered the surrounded Legionnaires by a factor of forty to one, but he was neither bloodthirsty or bent on revenge. Colonel Milan realized that the Legionnaires situation was hopeless and offered Danjou the chance to surrender with honor. With his force reduced to under 50 men following the skirmishes Danjou refused. He replied: “We have munitions. We will not surrender.”

The Legionnaires defense held against several assaults but with casualties mounting, ammunition dwindling and without food or water in the scorching heat Danjou rallied his men. He had lost his left hand in Algeria 10 years before and had a wooden hand fashioned.  He went to each Legionnaire offering words of support, a sip of wine and had each man swear on his wooden hand that they would not surrender.  While doing so he was shot and killed about noon.

Lieutenant Villian, the battalion’s much disliked Paymaster who volunteered for the mission took command, and the Legionnaires fought on suffering immensely under the fierce and accurate fire from the veteran Mexican troops. Somehow as happens in battle, the formerly hated officer inspired the Legionnaires to continue the fight until he was shot dead at about 1600 hours. Before he was killed Villian responded to another demand for surrender: “We may die, but never will surrender.” 

On his death, Lieutenant Maudet, the last surviving officer took command of the few remaining Legionnaires.

Around 1700 Colonel Milan approached the now burning Hacienda to offer the surviving Legionnaires another chance to surrender. The Mexican Commander looked inside the charnel house and saw Maudet rallying about a dozen Legionnaires amid piles of dead and wounded. Despite the hopeless situation Maude refused Milan’s offer and so Colonel Milan went back to his troops and ordered another assault on the position

With only himself and 5 remaining Legionnaires Maudet surveyed the situation. The Mexican troops were massing for another attack and his troops were down to one round of ammunition each. He and his men loaded their weapons and he ordered a charge into the massed Mexican infantry.  They engaged the Mexicans in hand to hand combat, Maudet and one Legionnaire were killed and four captured. The senior surviving noncommissioned officer, a Corporal Maine, requested that the survivors be treated for their wounds and be allowed to maintain their weapons and escort the remains of Captain Danjou to France.

Acceding to the bloodied Corporal’s request Colonel Milan, who was valiant and honorable officer was overwhelmed with emotion, and said:  “What can I refuse to such men? They are devils.”Colonel Milan’s words were very similar to what the German Army called the U.S. Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.

The sacrifice of the Legionnaires enabled the relief convoy to reach the French at Puebla. Emperor Napoleon III ordered the name Camarón embroidered on the Legion’s flag and the battle became legendary in the history of warfare. The Legion came into its own after Camarón.  Danjou’s wooden hand and forearm were recovered from the battlefield and returned to France 2 years following the battle.

Today Camarón is still marked by the Legion wherever its troops are stationed much as the United States Marine Corps marks their founding.  The wooden hand of Captain Danjou is removed from its case in the museum and paraded with the assembled troops. The officers serve their troops coffee symbolizing the coffee the defenders never drank and the commander of Legion at the headquarters as well as units deployed read the account of the battle. The week before the fall of their besieged redoubt at Dien Bien Phu was overrun the Legionnaires of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion remembered the sacrifice of their predecessors at Camarón with their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lemeunier read the story over the radio to the embattled garrison.

The Mexican Army marks the courage of the Legionnaires with a parade, speeches, and visitors including French dignitaries including the French Ambassador, and Foreign Legion veterans today. It is a fitting tribute to the men that fought that day.

Likewise, it is honor that with good reason the Mexicans do not extend to the soldiers of the United States military who invaded them more than once, massacred their soldiers, and whose government took over 40% of Mexican lands, and still treat Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented as criminals or potential criminals.

Maybe the Mexicans understand the concept of honor better than us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Psychology Of Dictatorship: Why Don’t We Learn From History?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Another weekend, another attack on a synagogue, and another crazed rally in which the President again made wild swings directed at his opponents and admitted it was his “sick idea” to try to send detainees from the border to Sanctuary Cities. His words, his sick idea, even as his Attorney General hints that he will not submit to testifying to Congress on the Muller Report.

Normal American Presidents and their officials do not carry on this way. Dictators do, but not American Presidents, however it is part and parcel of everything that the President and his administration says or does. So tonight I am reposting something that I wrote a while back after reading British Military Historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart’s little, but important book, “Why Don’t We Learn From History.”

NPG x25404; Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart by Howard Coster

B.H. Liddell-Hart

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have Read the short but poignant little but by the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart entitled Why Don’t We Learn from History, several times. The book was written in not long before his death in 1970 and it is good quite good. It deals with a number of issues, including the conflict between history and propaganda; or when faith, especially religious faith as treated as historic or scientific fact; and when propaganda or faith is preached as if it were history, if it were truth. In doing this he also contrasted democracy and lure of totalitarianism.

Liddell-Hart was a realist, especially about democracy and totalitarianism. He served on the Western Front in the First World War and was wounded in a German gas attack. Between the wars he was one of the theorists of armored warfare and the use of tanks in a combined arms force, and he was also quite observant of the trends toward totalitarianism in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Hart, like many others admitted the inefficiencies of democracy, however, he realized that it was far less dangerous than the “stupidity” of totalitarianism. In fact it was important for him to note just how this inefficient system was for freedom. He wrote:

“What is of value in “England” and “America” and worth defending is its tradition of freedom, the guarantee of its vitality. Our civilization, like the Greek, has, for all its blundering way, taught the value of freedom, of criticism of authority, and of harmonising this with order. Anyone who urges a different system, for efficiency’s sake, is betraying the vital tradition.”

There is much to ponder in his book and I will be posting some more of my thoughts on it, but when I looked at it again I was struck by just how much Liddell-Hart in his description of a despot described President Donald Trump through the his campaign and after his election and inauguration.

“We learn from history that self-made despotic rulers follow a standard pattern. In gaining power: They exploit, consciously or unconsciously, a state of popular dissatisfaction with the existing regime or of hostility between different sections of the people. They attack the existing regime violently and combine their appeal to discontent with unlimited promises (which, if successful, they fulfil only to a limited extent). They claim that they want absolute power for only a short time (but “find” subsequently that the time to relinquish it never comes). They excite popular sympathy by presenting the picture of a conspiracy against them and use this as a lever to gain a firmer hold at some crucial stage.” 

Once authoritarian, despotic, or dictatorial leaders gain power through the democratic process they seldom deviate from how they behave when seeking power. Liddell-Hart wrote:

“We learn from history that time does little to alter the psychology of dictatorship. The effect of power on the mind of the man who possesses it, especially when he has gained it by successful aggression, tends to be remarkably similar in every age and in every country.”

So please, take a breathe for a second and think about this in terms of President Trump and his actions during his first two weeks in office. Liddell-Hart noted that once a despot achieves power that their reign is marked by the following types of events:

“On gaining power:  They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it. 

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy. They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends. 

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public. 

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality. 

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward. 

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people. 

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created. 

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.”

Now pause for a moment. This is happening all over the world. It began again in Vladimir Putin’s Russia around 2010 and under a veneer of democratic “voting” Putin has become for all intents and purposes the dictator of Russia for as long as he desires. In Turkey Recip Erdogan has done the same thing, and it has also started in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In China President Xi managed to abrogate the Chinese Communist Constitution to become ruler for life.

In the United States Donald Trump has been in office for about 27 months. Look at how he is behaving. Read his words, examine his actions, and not just during his presidency but throughout his business career and his campaign for the presidency. Then look at how his followers take it all in.

Then, take the time to let Liddell-Hart’s words sink in.

This is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Day at Temple Israel: Passover and the Holocaust

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I had the distinct honor today of being a guest speaker at the end of the final Passover service for Norfolk’s Temple Israel Synagogue. They are a Conservative synagogue that is quite active in the community here. I met their Rabbi, Michael Panitz last year at a Navy Exchange Command Diversity Celebration. In the months following we have become friends and as I remain in the area after I retire from the military hopefully become close colleagues in the fight for religious rights as intended by the Bill of Rights.

I spoke on the topic of Bearing Witness in an age where the witnesses to the Holocaust are passing away and Holocaust Denial and anti-Semitism are rising, with a commensurate increase in anti-Semitic and racial base. Even today as we were finishing the service in Norfolk a synagogue in The area of San Diego came under attack by a gunman armed with an AR type assault rifle. He killed one and wounded three worshippers before surrendering to the police. In the hours before his attack the terrorist had published an anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant manifesto.

Truthfully I was worried about something like that happening in Norfolk today, thankfully nothing like that happened, the Norfolk Police had officers stationed at both entrances. I don’t know if anyone in the local area was thinking about or planning anything, but you never know. I was just grateful that nothing happened here.

I have to say that today was most interesting. It was the first time I have attended a Jewish Passover service and despite the fact that I couldn’t understand half or more of the service because it was in Hebrew, I still found it fascinating. In it I could see where Some of or Catholic and other liturgical Christian traditions come from, and I could not help but to reverence the Scrolls of the Talmud as they were processed down the aisles of the sanctuary and taken back to the Tabernacle; the psalms and songs led by the Cantor, scripture readings and prayers, including for the prayers for our ancestors who have died was for me fascinating. Of course through my study of liturgy I knew this, but for the first time to see it was very humbling. As a Christian I could see the debt that we owe to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What I talked about was received well, many of the congregation members came up,to me afterwards to thank me and tell me how much they learned and how it affected them. Likewise, they encouraged me to keep teaching, writing, and making pilgrimage to the sites that I have not yet visited.

We live in very dangerous times. We have to heed the words of Yehuda Bauer:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

As I mentioned last night this will be part of my post military mission, to teach, to write, and to take people to these places where millions were murdered by the Nazis and their allies.

As Ellie Wiesel noted: “For the dead and the living we must bear witness.”

I must bear witness.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Turning People into Questions or Problems: the Root Of Genocide

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the morning I will be speaking on the last day of Passover at Norfolk’s Temple Israel on bearing witness to the Holocaust even as its last survivors pass away from their earthly journey. Since it is late and I have to be up early, for a Saturday, I will leave you with this thought from the late Christopher Hitchens:

“Die Judenfrage,’ it used to be called, even by Jews. ‘The Jewish Question.’ I find I quite like this interrogative formulation, since the question—as Gertrude Stein once famously if terminally put it—may be more absorbing than the answer. Of course one is flirting with calamity in phrasing things this way, as I learned in school when the Irish question was discussed by some masters as the Irish ‘problem.’ Again, the word ‘solution’ can be as neutral as the words ‘question’ or ‘problem,’ but once one has defined a people or a nation as such, the search for a resolution can become a yearning for the conclusive. Endlösung: the final solution.”

President Trump repeatedly dehumanizes minority groups, immigrants, both legal and undocumented, LGBTQ people, religious minorities (including liberal Jewish) and women. Right wing pundits, politicians, and preachers often do the same, and the bulk of the Republican Party, mostly made up of White Evangelical Christians says nothing. While most do not readily admit their prejudice, though some, including members of Congress openly support White Nationalist policies and groups. Little or no condemnation is ever made by them against killings and mass murder, let us call it Domestic Terrorism. In return such groups are growing and being emboldened and the President and his compatriots spin lies as history.

How does one prevent yet another genocide from happening? I think that there is some wisdom in the answer a German University Colleague of Milton Mayer said when Mayer was questioning him about the subject.

In his book They Thought they Were Free Mayer wrote of his conversation with that professor:

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late.”

So I leave you with that for the night,

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Bearing Witness: My Mission

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The words on the polished stone in the hall of remembrance at the U.S. Holocaust Museum are as much as a somber warning as a command:

Only Guard Yourself and Guard Your Soul Carefully, Lest You Forget the Things Your Eyes Saw, Lest These Things Depart Your Heart All the Days Of Your Life, and You Shall Make Them Known to Your Children and to Your Children’s Children.

Last May I visited the United States Holocaust Museum. Since I study the Weimar and Nazi period, the Holocaust and the war crimes trials this was important. While in Germany I have been to the Dachau, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps, the T4 Euthanasia Program Center at Hadamar, the Palace Of Justice in Nuremberg where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (as well as the Nazi era Nuremberg laws) were prosecuted, the Wannsee House where the Final Solution was implemented, the Memorials to the German Resistance in Berlin, the Sophie Scholl White Rose Museum, and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism; this visit, in the United States was important. I will be continuing to visit Holocaust sites in Germany when I go there this Fall, but last year I finally was able to stake out the time to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

The museum is important and despite having been to places shown in it and knowing more about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust than the vast majority of Americans, I found myself overwhelmed at times as I walked slowly through the exhibits. Many I recognized, knew about, or had been to, but that did not make them any less emotionally difficult to see. But there were others that drove home why this museum is so important in our day and time.

I think that the one that hit me the hardest was the pictorial Tower of Faces from the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki. That town was home to some 4,000 Jews and the pictures had been taken over the preceding decade by local photographers. They were pictures of everyday family and community life; men, women, children at work, at play, at rest. Worshipping, working, studying, the old and the young, the well off and the poor, the religious and those not as religious at all phase of life captured in photos for eternity. For 3500 of them their lives ended on September 21st 1941 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews at their Synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and executed them by firing squad in mass graves at the town’s Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Only 29 of those who survived that day lived through the war. That Jewish community had existed for 900 years and was exterminated in a matter of hours.

I looked at those pictures and I could not get over all of those innocent lives cut short. Each face was the picture of an individual or individuals, families, friends, schoolmates. They were not abstract numbers or statistics but real flesh and blood people like you and me. They had hopes and dreams, but because they were Jews they were exterminated, like nearly six million other Jews who also were real people with hopes and dreams that would be destroyed by the Nazi racial war. Of course the Nazis targeted others, but none with the relentless anti-Semitic racial hatred propagated by Nazi ideology. Thus they condoned and executed by people who would have ordinarily have been considered upstanding and moral citizens. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

But then this is not abnormal as the great American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

The problem is that what happened during the Holocaust and to the people of the shtetl of Ejszyszki is not just an aberration, it is all too much a part of human nature; even that of people who call themselves Christians like those who exterminated the Jewish people of Ejszyszki. It is not simply an artifact of history that we can ignore. It can happen again and if we are not careful it will happen again. The spirit of the ideology that allowed normal law abiding people to massacre millions of people, either up close and personal like at Ejszyszki or in death factories like Soribor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Auschwitz is still alive today in Russia, Europe, and even in the United States. Of course it exists elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But I think that it is most frightening when it exists in the nations which claim to be inheritors of Christian civilization or the enlightenment, especially among the people who claim the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

Honesty when I see the President of the United States and his most devoted followers follow the script of the Nazis and other race supremacists I get concerned and I remember the words of historian Yehuda Bauer:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

As for people who might be neighbors, coworkers or even friends today who for whatever reason either support, dismiss, or ignore the peril of the racial, ideological, and religious animus of the modern authoritarians and anti-Semites I can only recall the words of Yale historian Dr. Timothy Snyder who wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Today, more than at any time in his Presidency, I truly believe that under President Trump that the United States is just a Reichstag Fire moment the usurpation Of the Constitution and the beginning of a dictatorship. I believe that, the Muller Investigation and the Democratic Party House Majority notwithstanding, we entering a phase of history when not only Trump supporters, but even some Trump opponents would do nothing in a crisis and either become willing participants in tyranny, bystanders to it or victims of it. As I walked through the museum and remembered all of my visits to Holocaust and other sites in Germany I realized again that it can happen again.

When I finished with most of my visit I went to the Hall of Remembrance and sat for a long time in silence, a silence facing the words on that stone, and that made me realize again just how easy it would be to happen again, and the choices that all of us must make if it is not to happen again in our time.

I’ll leave you with the warning of Yehuda Bauer:

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

I cannot be a bystander. This Saturday I will be speaking on the topic of bearing witness to the Holocaust as the last witnesses pass away and the Holocaust denial industry ramps up and gains supporters in the high reaches of governments around the world. It is entitled, Lest We Forget: Walk, Remember, and Bear Witness at Temple Israel in Norfolk. The premise is that In order to bear witness today the those who want to prevent genocide today need to study it, and then go to the places hallowed by the blood of the victims in order to internalize it and speak for those whose voices cry out from the grave, “never again!”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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America First and the Holocaust

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Before Donald Trump’s promise to Make America Great Again and govern by the principle America First there was a movement that proclaimed the message of America First. It was a movement that was led by men like Charles Lindbergh as well as many isolationist politicians, mostly Republicans. It advocated a policy favorable to Nazi Germany and fought against the immigration of any Jews to the United States from Germany or Nazi occupied Europe. Lindbergh blamed the Jews as well as the British, and the Roosevelt administration for the war more than he did Hitler, and this was in his Des Moines speech of September 11th 1941, after two years of war and Hitler’s ruthless war of conquest.

In that speech Lindbergh said:

“Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.”

That my friends is the root of the America First message. It was demonstrated in the Trump Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s words in the immediate aftermath of the Syrian chemical attack on its own citizens in which Spicer said that Hitler had not even done that, ignoring the fact that Hitler’s henchmen had gassed millions of Jews. When he attempted to correct himself he only dug himself in deeper by talking about “Holocaust Centers.” While they did not use it against enemy soldiers, they used it against their own people first, beginning with the disabled, then the Jews, both German and those in countries that they overran. It was evident in the administration’s statement on Holocaust memorial day which did not mention the Jews. One only hope that the President will someday will be somewhat more clear about who the primary targets of Hitler’s Final Solution were, instead of constantly invoking moral equivalence or simply ignoring violent acts of Neo-Nazis. Yes, many millions were killed or starved to death by the Nazis, but it was the Jews who were the target of Hitler’s race hatred from the very beginning. 

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

If this is what it means to make America Great again then we are deep trouble.  Historian Timothy Snyder wrote: “When exactly was the “again” in the president’s slogan “Make America great again”? Hint: It is the same “again” that we find in “Never again.”

I had hoped that the President would rid himself of this terrible America First ideology, for it has nothing to do with true patriotism or the ideals of those who founded our country. Instead he has doubled down on it over the past two years, and continues to do nearly every day. Yehuda Bauer wrote these exceptionally pertinent to our time:

The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, holocaust, nazi germany, Political Commentary