Can the Holocaust Happen Again -- Here?

One time I apologized to my class at the University of Minnesota because I felt I had alarmed them.

In the final lectures of my course of one hundred and ninety students called, "Introduction to Judaism," we discussed the impact on the demography of the Jewish people, and we talked about the philosophical meaning of the destruction of the European Jewish community during the Second World War. These events and circumstances have become known to us as the Holocaust.

More and more over the years, the Holocaust has assumed greater importance in the curriculum of this course. Some years ago I spent one lecture on the subject. That year we devoted four hours to issues related to the horrors and tragedies of a dark era just a single generation ago.

As part of the process of our discussion in the course I summarize the events and trends in European history and culture which lead up to the establishment of the death camps where millions of Jews were murdered, and of the crematoria, where their bodies were burned.

We discuss the issues of the Holocaust against our understanding of more than one thousand years of European Anti-Semitism. We examine then the philosophical and theological responses to the trauma of the Holocaust and try to understand what meaning it all has for the contemporary Jew and for all Americans.

In the midst of our lectures describing the facts of the destruction, questioning why the Holocaust happened, how it happened, and what it means, a student in the first row of the class raised her hand and asked with trepidation, did I, the instructor of the course, think that the Holocaust could happen again?

Without hesitation, I said yes. And I proceeded to explain why I thought so and how I thought it could occur.

The Holocaust was not an accident of history. It was not carried out by a few madmen in the midst of the confusion of war and terror. The most horrible aspect of the Holocaust was the organization and bureaucracy the Nazis created to carry out the murder of so many innocent civilians.

Recent books and films dealing with the subject bring out how banal and everyday were the activities associated with the murder of millions. Claude Lantzman's nine hour documentary, Shoah, to be shown here in Minneapolis at the Uptown theater beginning April 13, brilliantly brings home the point.

Common bureaucrats in all levels of public service signed the memoranda ordering the slaughter of the Jews. And the average citizen of Europe assisted in carrying out the orders. Many shared in the destruction of the Jews, each in a little, sometimes merely trivial way. After the fact, no one accepts responsibility for the crimes because every individual was just a part of a larger machine.

Can it happen again? Can the murder of millions of innocent men women and children happen again? I said yes to my student. Look at your neighbor, your friend, your relative. Someone you know works in the bureaucracy we call the military industrial complex. Perhaps he or she builds part of a missile, a guidance system, or works on some design problem with direct military application. Are they not bringing the reality of the next Holocaust closer

Maybe, I said to my class, your cousin goes to work every morning in an ICBM missile silo here in Minnesota or in North Dakota. When, God forbid, the order comes from the Officer to push the button, or turn the key, or enter the code, he or she, your friend or relative, will do it and will launch the missile and murder one million or more innocent civilians in Moscow, or Leningrad, or Berlin, or Prague.

I said, there is no doubt in my mind that another Holocaust can happen and will happen unless you students, the future hope of our state and nation do all that you can to bring peace. And then we went on to continue our lecture, on to the next question.

A few days later, while I was walking through the corridors of the University, I recalled the look I saw on the faces of some students after I calmly described how it could happen again. It was the look of discomfort, of worry, even of alarm.

I felt I had done the wrong thing. I had told them what no one should tell them. That mass murder and death are ordinary things, banal parts of governmental memoranda. That they may be preparing to take part in the process. And worst of all, I insinuated that even if they try, there is nothing they can do to stop or divert the process.

I came to class and asked, as I usually do, if there were any questions about the material assigned for the day. But instead of answering the questions, I stopped and apologized. I said I was sorry I answered as I had when asked whether it could happen again. I said I do not know what will happen in the future and should never try to predict.

I asked the students to please forget. I assured them that we would confine ourselves to the task of understanding Jewish history and thought and not try to extend our lessons beyond that.

Looking at their faces again, I knew they would not forget.


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Anonymous said...

Great post, Tzvee!
Recently, pretty much the same question was discussed by a teacher in my city. He said that if there would be Holocaust against the Jews in America, the ____'s would be the first in line. (I can't say who, but they have a reputation of being really nice people.)