At first, the grainy, sped-up, black-and white footage of men, women, and children being lined up and shot, their bodies kicked into open graves, looks like something from a silent film. But these are images from a real event. Later, as I walk through the cool, narrow corridors of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, listening to the narrator walk me through history, looking at the brutal instruments of death, and running my hands along the artifacts collected from the dead, everything feels somehow strange and otherworldly. The horrors depicted and described in this place did not happen inside a movie, but happened to real people, some of whom are in my family tree.
My mother is Jewish. My great-grandparents fled Poland and Russia at the turn of the 19th century in search of a better life. But if they hadn’t—and their emigration was perilous and uncertain—perhaps I would never have stood viewing footage of human atrocities. After all, it could have been my grandparents falling into those open graves.
I wept as I saw piles of shoes, glasses, children’s toys. People with hopes and dreams, ruthlessly hunted, captured, and killed. In a large, round room that looked like a planetarium, stars on the ceiling represented children; 1.5 million of them. In each star, I imagined the face of one of my children, vulnerable and innocent, marked for death.
Hindsight allows us to review history and be outraged from a distance. But the pathway to genocide was paved by a slow and steady marginalization of the Jewish people. First, they were the wealthy bankers of high society scapegoated for Germany’s loss of national character. Populist outrage, in a time of economic distress, worked to justify the slow erosion of liberty for German Jews. Eventually they were placed under severe economic and social restrictions, curbs that were not unpopular in the country. They were depicted in cartoons and pop culture as animals with disfigured faces. Then they were ghettoized, rounded up and sent to labor camps, used in scientific experiments, and sent in cattle cars to places like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka as part of the “Final Solution.”
The question most often asked in the narrowing corridors of Yad Vashem is “How could the world let this happen?” Because we doubt our own ability to either perpetrate or tolerate such evil, we are convinced that such a thing would be impossible today.
But the Nazi regime didn’t come to power in a third-world country under the spell of pagan ideologies. Hitler rose to power in the 20th century, in a civilized and predominately Christian country.
The truth is, great evil is possible in our day. Those of us who make up civilized societies are capable of engineering it. Holocausts happen because humans, corrupted by sin, turn on one another. Since Eden, we’ve found ways to supplant God rather than represent him in this world. We are never above assaulting the unique dignity with which he endowed every human being. It took one generation for Cain to see Abel no longer as a fellow human, created in God’s image, but as an obstacle to power. So it is with assaults on human dignity today.
But there is hope, even in the darkest of places. As visitors leave Yad Vashem, the narrow and dark corridors open up to bright sunlight over a beautiful green space called The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. It is dedicated to Gentiles who risked everything to protect and save Jews. The names are part of an ongoing roster of those who saw the inhumanity of the Holocaust and fought back.