Genocide Indifference

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Genocide Indifference

by Claudia Moscovici

Practically everyone knows that the Holocaust is the biggest genocide in human history.  But not everyone cares about this anymore. I’m not referring only to pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic groups. I fear that, as the last surviving Holocaust victims pass away, genocide indifference is becoming a mainstream phenomenon.  Part of the reason for this detachment may be that the Holocaust reminds us of an almost unimaginable horror and cruelty. The facts themselves are very difficult to absorb. The Holocaust involved the mass murder of approximately six million Jews: about two-thirds of European Jewry. Between the years 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were established by Adolf Hitler, until 1945, when the Allies liberated Europe, the Jews were systematically deprived of their civil rights, source of income, jobs, savings and property. They were segregated and isolated from non-Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues in ghettos, where they fell prey to starvation and disease. They were subjected to slave labor. They were rounded up by the SS and by paramilitary units to be shot in front of long ditches (which usually they, themselves, were forced to dig). They were packed up a hundred people into sealed cattle trains with no windows to concentration camps, traveling for days usually without food, water or the chance to relieve themselves. In the camps, they endured conditions of filth, forced labor, brutality, disease and hunger. Those selected for hard labor usually died within a few months from these grueling conditions. Those immediately selected for death were herded into facilities that resembled showers to die an excruciating death by inhaling a toxic gas that took fifteen to twenty minutes to work. Struggling to reach the last pocket of air, the strong trampled on the frail and small. Yes, almost everyone knows this. But does everyone care about it? Or are we becoming indifferent to this genocide of the past? I’d like to explore here some of the possible reasons for Holocaust indifference:

1. Knowledge doesn’t imply caring. In Israel one day is dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and its many victims at school and in the media. In the U. S., The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in most middle schools in a unit on the Holocaust. New generations are exposed to the subject, yet the depth of its tragedy may not register.  This brings me to my second reason: historical distance or presentism.

2. Historical distance. We are decades away from the genocide that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Slavs during WWII. Why focus on this unpleasant past? Some say, let’s live in the present. There are so many horrible things happening in the world today. Why not work on fixing them instead? My answer is that without knowledge of history it’s difficult to confront the problems of the present. Without learning from history, we may not easily recognize the dangers of autocracy; the vulnerability of democracies; the toxic charisma of sociopathic leaders; the lies or partial truths we are told to justify inhumane actions. Only by learning about the dangers—and horrors—of the past can we recognize them in the present and avoid them in the future.

3. Desensitization. It’s well known that people can become desensitized to gruesome events by familiarity and repetition. The fact we hear often about the Holocaust in history classes or the media doesn’t mean that the horror touches us on an emotional level. In fact, as Raul Hilberg explains in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), gradual desensitization to cruelty against Jews was one of the main reasons why so many ordinary people could participate in the killing machinery of the Holocaust.  Initially, the German soldiers hesitated to kill civilians. After a few months in the death squads, however, they felt comfortable enough to kill even children without a second thought: “Again and again, witnesses recall that small children were thrown out of windows, or tossed like sacks into trucks, or dashed against walls, or hurled live into pyres of burning corpses” (p. 54).

4. Ethnic or religious blindspots. Many people have a sense of ethnic belonging and care most about their social group. After all, nobody can care about every bad thing that happens in this world. But caring only about your social group not only diminishes the capacity for empathy, but also gives you a potentially dangerous blindspot. Those who care only about their ethnic or religious group are more likely to support harm done to other groups. They are also more likely to miss the obvious: the bad things that happened to others can happen to your group too. Ethnic and religious discrimination sets a dangerous precedent. Conversely, when you care about the rights of others you defend your human rights too.

5. Nationalist pride. I think nationalism and patriotism can be very positive phenomena. They give those living in a country a sense of cohesion and pride. But there is such a thing as misplaced patriotism. There are some things that your country has done that nobody should be proud of. Denying that they happened or shifting blame is not a constructive way to keep the glory and unity of one’s country intact. Now that so many formerly communist countries have become democratic, it’s time that they face the truth about their role in the Holocaust. Today’s generations are not to blame for what their ancestors did. But they are to blame for the truth that they deny. In short, there are no good reasons for genocide indifference.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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