The Holocaust Is Not a Story of Heroes

January 25, 1995|By MARVIN HIER

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- A few years ago, a prominent Holocaust survivor told me that he took exception to the recent trend of remembrances where the focus is on heroic individuals such as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. His point was not that they are undeserving of our eternal gratitude and honor, for they surely are. His fear was that young people might come to believe that the relatively few practitioners of righteous conduct were the dominant characters of the Holocaust.

Friday, survivors and world leaders will gather at Auschwitz to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. Undoubtedly, for most of the participants who personally experienced the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich, this will be their last gathering. Future anniversaries will now pass to the next generation.

What kind of memory will they inherit? Will it be a memory reduced to a sound bite? Or will they have a deeper understanding of the machinery that made possible the horrors of Auschwitz?

Will it include Hitler's early writings in ''Mein Kampf,'' explaining what would happen to the Jews if he took power? Will they remember his use of the legal system that invoked the so-called Nuremberg Laws barring Jews from German society? Or the infamous Concordat, which the Vatican signed with Hitler's Third Reich in 1933, granting the Nazis prestige and making it acceptable for the world to flock to Hitler's doorstep for the 1936 Olympics?

And what about the 1938 Evian conference, where international delegates refused to open their doors to the desperate refugees? As the Australian delegate put it, ''We don't have a racial problem and don't want to import one.''

Or the secret Wannsee Conference of 1942, held by the German government. Will American students from Sioux City, Peoria or Los Angeles know that 11 different branches of the German government were represented at that meeting where plans were completed to exterminate an entire people with poisonous gas, thereby endowing mankind with the diabolical legacy of Auschwitz and Majdanek?

Or will the next generation's view of the Holocaust be reduced to a brief discussion in a classroom about an important book or film, where, inevitably, the few heroes manage to rise above the evil around them and stand up for human dignity? If that is all our students come away with, then I'm afraid my friend's fear is quite justifiable.

For in the end, if the ''Shoah'' is limited to the courage of a Schindler or a Wallenberg, then we have arrived at the same point as the Holocaust revisionists. To them, there was no Auschwitz because decent German people wouldn't have allowed it. And for our students, there would be no real Auschwitz because the righteous stepped in and prevented the Jews from getting there.

But unfortunately, most of the Jews destined for Auschwitz did get there -- and were murdered there.

The truth is that in the larger landscape of the Holocaust, the Schindlers and the Wallenbergs, despite their great individual deeds, were like speckles of dust dwarfed by the monstrous figures of the Eichmanns and Heydrichs.

Indeed, for every Pastor Bernard Lichtenberg, who died en route to Dachau because he had the courage to pray for the Jews, there were dozens of other prelates -- from Pope Pius XII down -- who at best looked the other way, protected their own, were bystanders.

And what of the World War II diplomats? Will we cite Chiune Sugihara, the extraordinary Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania, who saved nearly 8,000 Jews, and forget those heartless, anti-Semitic diplomats in the State Department and Whitehall who worked overtime to prevent a single Jewish refugee from entering Britain or the United States?

Close to 5 billion people now inhabit our planet. Only a small percentage will ever visit Auschwitz or a Holocaust museum. More than likely, their exposure will be limited to a movie they watch in school or at home.

The reality is that most of the world's people will never be exposed to the Holocaust's central lesson -- that a civilized society voluntarily turned itself into an evil one; that lawyers and judges lied and cheated; that teachers distinguished between Aryans and non-Aryans, teaching their students that even God's ''thou shalt not kill'' did not apply to society's ''Untermenschen'' -- the subhumans, a name the Nazis used to describe Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other ''undesirables.''

Of course, we should honor those who attempted to shed some light on those long black nights. But we must insist that the apex of what we remember is that there was nothing heroic about the Holocaust; that there were far more villains than saints, far more experts at closing doors than those people brave enough to open them.

So every time we recall the defiance of the few, the courageous deeds of the small category of rescuers, we must be vigilant never to forget the silence of the many, the thousands who betrayed their neighbors to the Gestapo, and the hundreds of train operators who went to work every morning with their lunch pails and then proceeded to take their unsuspecting victims in sealed cattle cars to the death camps, never questioning their mission or having second thoughts about herding off generations of men, women and children to hell.

Only the full memory does justice to the victims of the Holocaust and may be strong enough to protect our grandchildren from another Final Solution.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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