“It happened, therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi
The exhibit “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” opened at the Ronald Reagan Museum on March 24. There are selected objects from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and from more than 20 other institutions and museums.
The curator, Michael Berenbaum, said that the exhibit had been developed out of respect for the victims (and visitors) and there are no gratuitous depictions of violence.
What he doesn’t say is just by telling the story, through panels, photos and films, the horror of what happened and why it was allowed to happen, is beyond anyone’s worst nightmare.
The suitcases that people had packed for a trip supposedly for a better life are on display. One learns that upon arrival at Auschwitz, people were assigned to one of two lines. They were asked their age, occupation and health. Children and old people, pregnant women and people with disabilities were sent straight to the gas chambers.
They were told to take off all their clothes and then herded to be killed.
The gas started at floor level and as it started to rise, the healthier tried to climb atop the others to survive.
One tiny “bubble” window allowed guards to see the process. When those inside tried to break it to escape and a wire was put over the window.
When the door was finally opened, the corpses spilled out.
How could a civilized societies allow it? Why did so many stay silent?
When Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany, it was a nation of high poverty and high unemployment rates. Instead of blaming the country’s problems for its governmental policies, Hitler said that certain minorities, and particularly the Jews, were responsible for the nation’s misfortunes. People were happy to have a target, a scapegoat, it was easier.
This led to the murder of almost six million Jews. Two thirds of European Jews disappeared forever during World War II.
Other “enemies” of the German nation includes Slavs, Roma(Gypsies), homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, African Americans and Jehovah Witnesses.
The questions that bothered this editor while visiting the exhibit was “How was this allowed to happen? And, how can people ensure it will never happen again?
Robert Jackson, the Chief Counsel for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials in November 1945, said:
“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated…Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.”
Forbes in a 2017 opinion piece (“As We Remember the Holocaust, How Do We Prevent the Genocides of Today”) wrote that genocides were continuing today.
“Then the world ignored genocidal atrocities in Beirut and Cambodia in the 1970s, Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s.
“Atrocities like the genocide do not just happen overnight. Genocide can develop from mass atrocities, for example, war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, this progression takes time and often happens with an attendant ignorance by the international community which gives the perpetrators license to continue.”
Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch developed 10 stages of genocide:
- Classification– The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which can be carried out using stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different.
- Symbolization– This is a visual manifestation of hatred. Jews in Nazi Europe were forced to wear yellow stars to show that they were ‘different.’
- Discrimination– The dominant group denies civil rights or even citizenship to identified groups. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their German citizenship, made it illegal for them to do many jobs or to marry German non-Jews.
- Dehumanization– Those perceived as ‘different’ are treated with no form of human rights or personal dignity. During the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as ‘cockroaches’; the Nazis referred to Jews as ‘vermin’.
- Organization– Genocides are always planned. Regimes of hatred often train those who go on to carry out the destruction of a people.
- Polarization– Propaganda begins to be spread by hate groups. The Nazis used the newspaper Der Stürmer to spread and incite messages of hate about Jewish people.
- Preparation– Perpetrators plan the genocide. They often use euphemisms such as the Nazis’ phrase ‘The Final Solution’ to cloak their intentions. They create fear of the victim group, building up armies and weapons.
- Persecution– Victims are identified because of their ethnicity or religion and death lists are drawn up. People are sometimes segregated into ghettos, deported or starved and property is often expropriated. Genocidal massacres begin.
- Extermination– The hate group murders their identified victims in a deliberate and systematic campaign of violence. Millions of lives have been destroyed or changed beyond recognition through genocide.
- Denial– The perpetrators or later generations deny the existence of any crime.
Not only do nations need to fight these atrocities, but each citizen has responsibility, too.
Each individual needs to stand up for truth. Each individual must have the courage not to go along with a popular idea. Each individual has to be willing to speak out against unfairness, even if it puts that person at risk.
If individuals are not willing to do that, then “Not long ago. Not Far Away.” is not that far away.
Put simply, anytime people blame a group for not having money or property or for advancing in his/her life, or lacking what others have, this can happen again. Even more simply, don’t blame others for your problems: don’t automatically agree with people who say others are the problem.
The exhibition runs through August 13. Tickets are necessary, Those attending must be 12+. Visit: Reaganlibrary.gov.