By Mark Yost
Houston, TX, USA
A Christian’s Thoughts on the Holocaust
“You just don’t get it,” is a common refrain.
Women say it to men.
Blacks say it to whites.
Liberals say it to conservatives.
And, I’ve found in candid discussions over the years, Jews say it to Christians when it comes to discussing the Holocaust.
“Are you Jewish?” I’ve often been asked (I’ll give you more context here in a minute).
When I’ve said, “No,” I was often told, “Then you can’t understand it.”
Stay Thirsty Publisher Dusty Sang and I had just such a conversation shortly after I’d written a piece for The Wall Street Journal on a special exhibit at the Dallas Holocaust Museum about famous Hollywood directors who filmed the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated in 1945, toward the end of World War II. Not only did they film the camps and the survivors, they documented the existence of the crematoriums and medical experimentation labs, and their ghastly remains. Perhaps more importantly, this video evidence was used to convict Nazis commandants and camp guards at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials.
What follows is basically a recap of the conversation I had with Dusty, and that I’ve had with many other Jewish friends since a mid-1990s trip to Auschwitz.
First off, let me say that I am no Holocaust denier. Anything but.
I grew up in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s when you often encountered Holocaust survivors. Indeed, it was not unusual, especially in Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Israel, to see small business owners with numbers tattooed on their arms.
I’m also a huge World War II buff, and it’s impossible to know anything about World War II without recognizing that the “Final Solution” was very much a part of Hitler’s plans for world domination. Some 20 million people were killed in what’s universally called the Holocaust. Among them were Christians, artists, homosexuals. But, without a doubt, the villains that were being rounded up en masse by the Stormtroopers were the Jews. That was true in Hitler’s mind, and – sad to say – the minds of most everyday Germans in the 1930s and ‘40s.
As an adult, I’ve been to many of the famous sites – a really horrific term, I know, but that’s what they are – of the Holocaust. I was an Editorial Page writer for The Wall Street Journal in Europe in the mid-1990s, and visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, Holocaust memorials throughout myriad European capitals, including Berlin, and I’ve been to the camps.
This is really where the trouble started for me. Trouble not in that I became some sort of anti-Semite, but that I really began to ask questions of myself about my feelings about the Holocaust.
Let me explain:
I went to Auschwitz in the spring of 1997. I honestly was looking forward to going because my expectation was that I was going to walk into and fully feel the weight and horror of what I imagined to be the epicenter of 20th-century evil. Much to my chagrin, it didn’t turn out that way.
First off, it was an unusually gorgeous day in western Poland. I say unusually because when you think of the camps – as depicted in books and movies – you think of these horribly dark and evil places. Auschwitz, I’m sorry to say, was anything but on this particular day. The sun was shining, it was 70-some degrees, and there was a glorious blue sky with billowy white clouds.
I paid the extra $30 to get a personal guided tour. As it turned out, our guide was a former inmate. He had been a Christian school teacher living in Krakow when the Nazis came plowing through Poland in September 1939. He worked in a factory for a while, he told us, making something or other for the Nazi war machine. He was eventually pulled off the production line and sent to Auschwitz, where he was interred until its liberation by the Soviet Army in January 1945. For the record, some 1.3 million people were sent there from 1940-45; an estimated 1.1 million of them died there.
We went through the famous gate, seen in so many history books and newsreels, with the inscription, “Arbeit macht Frei” – “Work will make you free.” As we all know, nothing could have been further from the truth.
He then proceeded to take us through the building where the horrific medical experiments were conducted on prisoners. Then into the rooms that feature large glass display cases filled with shoes, suitcases, hair, gold teeth, glasses; all things taken from the prisoners that were sent there.
We then walked along the railroad tracks that come through the main gate and end near the barracks, many of which are still standing. And then we walked over to where the crematoriums used to be.
After nearly every stop, he’d explain in detail what he had witnessed first-hand, then he’d ask, “Isn’t that horrible?”
Most of us said nothing. I’m not sure we knew, at that moment, what to say.
I think we were all a little numb at the end of the tour. The whole thing was, even for a historian like me, more palatable than ever before.
I remember walking away from Auschwitz with three thoughts. The first two are easy to digest.
I remember how the soil underneath the grass changed as we got closer to the crematoriums. Instead of being brown dirt, it was this gray soot. Our tour guide explained that it was the ash that had blown out of the crematoriums after the prisoners were incinerated. If you pushed your hand through the grass and picked up a handful, you noticed there were sharp, white shards mixed in with the ash. He said that was bone fragments that even in the highly efficient Nazi ovens hadn’t been fully burned.
I also remember noticing how close the camp was to town. In addition to the railroad tracks, there was a main road running right by the main gate. I remember thinking: How could the Poles not have known? How could they have ignored the smell and the constant trains coming in full of people, pressing their faces against the gaps in the wooden-slat siding to try and get a gulp of fresh air? How could they have ignored those same trains leaving empty, only to return a week or so later with another trainload of people no one wanted to ask questions about?
The simple answer is: They knew. Our guide told us as much. He said townspeople would often come and throw parcels of day-old bread and old clothing over the barbed-wire fences. The guards, he said, didn’t much bother them. The Nazis knew that the Jews were eventually headed for the ovens. And the townspeople and the Germans had reached a détente – much as they had throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. You don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.
Having said all that, the third, predominant feeling that I walked away from Aushchwitz with was guilt. Guilt because I didn’t feel as horrible as I’d expected to feel before my visit. Yes, the visit was reaffirmation for me that, indeed, this had happened and it had been horrific. But I really didn’t feel like I had a better understanding of the experience before or after my visit.
Maybe it’s because I’d read so much about the war and the Holocaust since I’d been a young kid. Maybe it’s because some of the survivors had been the shopkeepers in my neighborhood. And maybe it’s because I never, ever doubted that it had happened.
But it still bothered me, and sometimes bothers me to this day.
So much so that I called Ray Sokolov, the Editor of the Journal’s Leisure and Arts page back in New York. I sometimes wrote museum review and travel pieces for Ray and felt close enough to him to express my true feelings. Ray was Jewish, had family that had been exterminated during the Holocaust, and I called him to express my feelings. “I thought I would feel worse,” I told him.
He gave me what I think was the best answer I’ve received in response to this internal struggle. In short, Ray said (I’m paraphrasing) that he has mixed feelings about Holocaust museums, especially exhibits that attempt to re-create the atmosphere of the camps with barbed wire and train cars and photographs of emaciated people. In short, Ray said it’s a fool’s errand to think we can re-create something so horrific. In some ways, it almost cheapens the experience and memory of those who went through it, for those of us to try and re-live it some 70 years removed, in an effort to somehow enrich our empathy.
It gave me a modicum of solace. After all, I thought, I don’t get weepy when I go to Gettysburg or Normandy or Verdun. Yes, it’s interesting to walk the grounds and perhaps gives you a better perspective in terms of the topography and the buildings.
Despite all this, I still think about it. I think about my feelings and my reaction to my visit to Auschwitz.
As to Dusty’s specific question: Can – and should – Christian’s have the same emotional pain and empathy over the Holocaust as Jews? Or, paraphrasing the question I put at the start of this essay: Can non-Jews “get it”?
I think we can. Because at the end of the day we’re not Christians or Jews or Muslims. We’re all human beings. And if we don’t have empathy for our fellow human beings, it doesn’t matter what label we put on them.
As to Holocaust museums and memorials, I think they’re important reminders. Sadly, they’re important refutations to those who – amazingly – still try to deny it ever happened.
But for those of us who never doubted the Holocaust to expect to have more empathy after visiting these sacred sites, I agree with Ray Sokolov. It’s a fool’s errand. You either care about what happened there, or you don’t. All the museums and monuments in the world won’t change that.
Mark Yost is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and is the author of five novels in the Rick Crane Noir mystery series.