The other day, when switching on a gas stove, I struck a match and watched as the blue-white flame sprung to life and as it hissed and flickered, I repressed a shudder. Not because anything was necessarily amiss… But rather because, after my recent visit to the Cape Town Holocaust Museum, I know just how potent this silent killer can be…
In Nazi death camps – such as the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmo and Majdanet – up to 2,500 Jews could be gassed at once.
Duped into thinking that they would be receiving showers to wash what could sometimes be two weeks’ worth of travel grime off their bodies, the Jews entered the gas chambers with little to no resistance.
But, instead of clean water coming out of the shower heads, it was invisible fingers of gas and roughly fifteen minutes later, their lungs would burst and they would die.
The thought of that makes my blood run cold – and I hope that it always will but more than that, I hope that I never stop imagining the horrors of that time.
People may ask why, 70 years after the Holocaust, as a world, we should still be cognisant of it? The answer is a fairly simple one: if we do not remember such terrible injustices against humanity, such horrendous crimes, as well as the so-called ‘mistakes of the past’, then, as the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat them… (In fact, in some countries, it seems we already have.)
There’s a lingering misconception that, during the Holocaust, only Jews were persecuted and put to death – yet this is partly untrue. Yes, 6 million Jewish people were murdered just for being Jewish (you were classified as being a Jew if you had even one Jewish grandparent) but it was also mentally and/or physically disabled- and black people, Gypsies and other mixed races, Jehovah’s Witnesses and finally, gay men – all of who either paid the blood price for their so-called ‘crimes’ or were ostracised and criminalised.
Between 1939 to 1945, 200,000 mentally and 250,000 physically disabled people were killed under the T-4 euthanasia programme, as well as others, whilst Gypsies and homosexuals were sterilised as ‘deviant associals’, and many teenagers with African and German parentage were sterilised because of their race.
However, closer analysis shows us that this purging and persecution was no more about the colour of person’s skin than it was about their perceived physical deformities or sexual preference, any more than it was about creating a supposedly ‘master’ race of Aryan humans, in all their blond-haired, blue-eyed glory … it was about eradicating all and sundry who did not agree to or naturally fit in with a set of ideals. It was intolerance at its highest level – and on every possible level at that!
The Holocaust may have ended 70 years ago – but it almost seems to me as if, as a world, we have learned nothing from it, for the cruelty of man and the refusal to accept those who look, live or feel different to us, whether externally or internally, continues to thrive.
What right does one human being have to label another as imperfect or unnatural? To find fault in their personal belief system or the god who they choose to pray to or bow down before? If you are a Hindu and I am a Christian, is your faith any less worthy or special than mine? No, of course not.
Or if I have two legs and you have a stump, does that make my right to life greater than yours? Does that mean you possess any less beauty and goodness? No, it does not.
It bears no weight, just as whether you’re into women (or even both or perhaps no one at all), whilst I’m into men, says nothing about the way either of us can and will influence this world, it says nothing of our true potential and abilities, any more than having a darker skin or a hooked nose does.
We don’t have to share each other’s views but we should have the decency to respect them or, if we cannot do that, then at least to hold our peace and not openly criticise, poke fun at or presume to judge them.
If the Holocaust and Apartheid after it (at least as far as my home country of South Africa is concerned) taught us to be mindful of such things, then, over time, we have quickly forgotten this.
That is why people are gunned down on holiday beaches in Tunisia or blown up in Nigeria, why children with learning impairments are bullied on playgrounds and social media alike, why places such as Missouri and Ukraine have had their turns to burn, why Indian women are raped when they dare to venture out at night and a brave, young girl was shot in the head by cowardly terrorists for wanting equal rights or an education and it is why homophobic and racial slurs are still uttered around the braai or told above the office peculator.
Humanity grows increasing selfish and vain and as individuals, sects, groups and populaces we like what we like and believe what we believe – and to hell with anyone who disagrees or sees life differently!
We have forgotten that, not too long ago, Nazi soldiers used babies for target practice, that 1994 was a good year for South African democracy… as much as it was a ‘good’ year for a Rwandan genocide.
We no longer recall the horror of a Wall that divided an entire city into two parts, separating loved ones and friends in the process, because it was torn down in 1989. It’s gone, nothing but the remnants and memory of it remain and yet, today, the world-over, towns, cities and countries are divided by similar invisible walls and barriers, built not from mortar, nor from stone, yet cemented by opposing beliefs and skin tones.
Why should I live in fear of seeing a loved one blown to bits before my eyes because somewhere in Kabul another explosion has gone off? Should I be afraid of pirates claiming the Cape Peninsula because they terrorise the Horn of Africa? No, probably not… but nonetheless, I should feel for those people and grieve for my world that is slowly being torn apart by its own inhabitants.
As with the Holocaust, the lives of the unknown and nameless become statistics, numbers we throw around in casual conversation or that we’re mindful of only for as long as they replay on the news or feature on the main page of our daily paper. Another plane has crashed, killing all of its 50 passengers… oh, well, planes crash all the time… flying, it’s a risky business, just ask Superman.
Another car bomb went off in Yemen, injuring at least 28… that’s, uh, ‘normal’? Honestly, I’d rather see the build-up to Wimbledon…
It’s not that I don’t feel a hollowness in my stomach or silently think of those poor people who were maimed as they innocently went about their daily lives but, well, what can I do for them? What good does my outrage or grief do for someone whose child was wounded in that explosion?
So, yes, I concede that even when we aren’t entirely desensitised to those suffering in our own country (or in one oceans away from us), there is little we can do to stop the greater injustices that ravage Earth every single day, both man- and god-made alike… but we can influence our own communities, schools and universities and even, to a lesser degree, our social media followers by doing and saying the right things, by trying to be better people, by loving people for their differences and imperfections rather than hating them for them and learning to offer a kind word of hope instead of a cruel word of discouragement or mockery.
As Marlene Silbert, tour guide at the Centre – one of 400 such Holocaust museums found across the world – said, “If we do not protect our neighbours, who will protect us?” Something else she said stayed with me long after I left, “Knowledge must come with values…”
That is why I believe we cannot forget the Holocaust – because 70 years ago, the entire world turned a blind for just longer enough to lose all sight of its humanity, for as the famous quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
[Date written: 07/07/15]