(originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press)
When I heard that Holocaust Survivor Eva Schloss was speaking in Chattanooga, I seriously considered staying home. I know Holocaust stories all too well from my work in Holocaust education, the hand-typed memoirs of survivors sent to me, and my father’s World War II letters. Dad was a US military intelligence officer assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. His letters described their education into fascism and its authoritarian ultranationalism, dehumanizing minorities and suppressing opposition.
I hated reliving those memories, but this isn’t just history. This is now, as Schloss emphasized in her newspaper interview that morning. She felt compelled to highlight the moral lessons of genocide and of complicity in turning a blind eye to injustice. She underscored the contemporary danger of being bystanders at the plight of refugees or religious persecution.
I planned to buy a ticket at the event figuring there’d be many seats available. How many people would show up and subject themselves to this experience? Yet, the line to get into Memorial Auditorium extended onto the sidewalk and around the theater. Who knew that an eighty-nine year old Holocaust Survivor would draw such numbers?
The crowd grew and I was giving up hope that I’d be able to buy a ticket. But a kind young woman offered me one of her extra tickets. She then adopted me as part of her family for the evening and bought us all bottled water. This was an unusually humane theater crowd.
Fortunately, the auditorium delayed getting underway so that we could all be seated. As Eva’s story unfolded, it was eerily parallel to that of her step sister, Anne Frank, whose diary is an iconic testimony to both humanity’s savageness and perseverance. Their sweet childhood, loving family were separated and destroyed by Hitler’s invading troops. I once asked my father what happened to Anne Frank. He barked, “She died” and marched away. It was decades before he’d talk about what he’d seen. It takes grit to tell these stories.
Eva shared her depression after learning that her father and brother perished at a labor camp located on a rocky ridge. I sat up in my seat hearing the camp’s name, Mauthausen. Years ago, I interviewed a survivor of that camp for a film and was horrified by the stories I heard. Maybe it was lack of time or inability to repeat these stories, but Eva spared us the details of slave labor at the Mauthausen quarry. Maybe she couldn’t bear to relive how laughing Nazi guards threw the weak, sick, and starved off the rocky ridge to their deaths.
Amazingly, Eva carried on despite her loss. She recovered from the horrors of the cattle car deportation to Auschwitz. Eva lived through Dr. Mengele’s “selection” of naked prisoners for the Auschwitz gas chambers. Her passion to live was matched by her determination to teach us how good people can become mindless followers. She cautioned, after you kill a few people, killing them becomes mundane and the new normal.
Decades ago, ordinary citizens followed a charismatic leader uncritically who demonized opponents, dehumanized minorities and preaching unbridled nationalism. Indoctrination crept up on people then, and it threatens to do the same today. My father could spot Nazi sympathizers by the books on their shelves. The people who resisted weren’t immersed in government propaganda.
Learn from the Holocaust. Be wary of what you read and watch. Don’t be swayed by lies and alternate facts or swept up in hate. Circumstances may have changed, but human nature has not, and a new normal is fast engulfing our humanity.