This past Saturday was Holocaust Remembrance Day; across the world, people took time out to recall man’s cruelty to man, and pledge “Never again” once more.
An acquaintance of mine has been to Auschwitz; he told me that it was difficult to explain the dread he felt upon the seeing the gate with the legend “Arbeit Macht Frei”.
His visit took place long enough ago that his guide was a former inmate; at one point during the tour, the guide rolled up his sleeve and showed the tattoo indicating his prisoner number. Only the intervention of the Red Army had prevented him from sharing the fate of countless others. The Auschwitz museum has exhibits that show piles of suitcases marked with the names of owners who were never intended to reclaim them. Piles of eyeglasses are similarly collected.
The Nazis took whatever valuables they could find; not only were they murderers, they were also thieves.
My acquaintance related the most horrifying aspect of the tour: he was led by the guide out among the tall grass near the crematoria. This was in the summertime: the air was warm and pleasant, the sunshine was golden, a breeze rippled through the foliage. After stopping in a substantial patch of the grass, the guide carefully bent over and touched the ground: when he stood, there were flecks of human bone on his fingertip.
These, he explained, had been spewed out when the crematoria were in operation. “We still live with this,” the guide said. “The past is still here.”
We are living in an era where some would rather have us forget: the far right is now in power in Austria, far right parties threaten to do well in the upcoming elections in Sweden and Italy.
As we contend with the tensions brought about by economic and social change, there are always going to be voices that cry halt, some will demand that we press Rewind. This in and of itself is not a problem: what is worrisome is when whole groups of people are blamed for society’s ills. The “alien other” becomes a scapegoat, and scapegoating is the first step on a long road to dehumanising people; dehumanising people leads to the eventual destination of inhumanity to man.
It’s right and proper that we designate a day to remember, and pledge once more to never let such things happen again. But when moments of silence end, and the day passes, and the events that we recall recede further back into time, we should remain conscious that “never again” demands an everyday vigilance.
We should converse, not scapegoat, work together, not blame, and understand, not shut our ears. Until we are all doing so, we cannot be certain this horror will not occur once more.