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The Holocaust teaches the lesson that human morality is a fragile concept, which can all too easily be eroded. While being overly responsive to the needs of others can threaten one’s sense of safety and personal boundaries, on the other hand, indifference is devastating. Mass murder, including the Holocaust, is made possible when an ideology (such as National Socialism) renders individual morality non-functional.
Seventy years after the end of the Holocaust, survivors are dwindling in numbers. Many of those who are able to, feel the urgency to tell what happened to them. With every story told, both survivors and their audiences consider why the retelling?
For some, it is to acknowledge their rescuer. Others note that to forget the past is to risk repeating it. For others, it is to discuss resilience in the face of the bleakest conditions. For still others, the distinction between a bystander and someone who gets involved is key. For Anna Ornstein, who told her story on Sunday, it is about human morality.
Anna Ornstein, M.D. (née Brunn), professor of child psychiatry at Harvard University, is now 87. She was born in Szendro, Hungary and survived Auschwitz … twice, with her mother. Dr. Ornstein tells the story more completely in her autobiography, My Mother’s Eyes. And, she speaks publicly to groups on behalf of the organization, Facing History and Ourselves. She discussed how, in the early years after the Holocaust, “many survivors were afraid to share their stories” – for several different reasons.
Some needed to protect themselves, as their feelings about their experiences were overwhelming. Many also felt the importance of “protecting” their children, so that their children would not associate the horrors with their own identity as Jews. Some children made this dissociation independently; they could not recognize their parents as the protagonists even when they heard their family stories. Dr. Ornstein discussed how it is human nature to avoid confronting horrors directly.
The question that begs asking is: What are the Holocaust lessons about human morality today? Beyond self-protection, is it human nature to turn away from atrocities? Are these qualities that exist within each person regardless of the era, or have they intensified since the Holocaust?
Accountability for the Holocaust certainly lies with the perpetrators, but what about bystanders? Where does responsibility for neighbors and compatriots begin and end? Today’s world is fraught with examples of eroded morality, from idolizing celebrities to ignoring the plight of others. While a little turning away is necessary for self-preservation, in the extreme, it is dangerous. Perhaps more than ever, today it is necessary to guard against compromising a sense of morality.
An important factor to keep in mind is that, in the Holocaust, Nazis only systematically exterminated Jews in countries which they occupied. This is important because, while a situation may appear bleak, it is only with government complicity, occupation, or erosion that a political situation can turn from painfully uncomfortable to devastation.
Dr. Anna Ornstein described that, during the Holocaust, the Hungarian government was an early ally of Germany, but after military defeats and losses, Hungary sought to establish an armistice with the western Allies. German forces occupied Hungary in March 1944 to prevent this peaceful resolution. With lightning speed, German Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators had forced Jews into makeshift ghettoes.
A few months later, Hungarian authorities and German Security Police (SS) liquidated those ghettoes, deporting 440,000 Jews by train. Men of working age were sent to forced manual labor – most worked to death or randomly shot by the SS. All other Jews, except for those few in hiding or part of the resistance movement, were sent to Auschwitz for the intent of extermination – about 320,000 were killed as soon as they arrived; some were forced into slave labor. Of the 825,000 Jews who lived in Hungary prior to the War, only 255,000 survived – less than one-third of the population.
During her talk, Dr. Ornstein asked the perennial question of human morality that is often asked about the Holocaust: How could people kill massive numbers of children and women and live with themselves? And, how could others stand by and allow destruction to occur? This question can be asked today of heinous events and human rights abuses: the Rwandan Genocide, the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls, starvation conditions and human rights violations in North Korea, the chemical weapons assault by the Syrian army on hundreds of civilians, the appropriation of eastern Ukraine, the resurgence of anti-Semitism, and the continuation of worldwide racism.
All of these acts are abhorrent and are condemned by human rights watch groups. Yet, even after the protocols established at the Geneva Convention of 1949 and with billions of eyes upon them, these abuses continue unabated. As Dr. Ornstein said in her talk on Sunday, if everyone contributes a little to expose harmful human rights situations, problems can be brought to light and change can occur.
The lessons of the Holocaust have taught that human morality can be in jeopardy once government complicity is attained. It is the world’s responsibility to recognize where being a bystander can make the difference between life and devastation.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
Fern Remedi-Brown writes on global social justice issues (human rights, LGBT, health care and education access, immigration, refugees, Nazi Holocaust) for Guardian Liberty Voice.
Selected cited previous articles include:
Rwanda Genocide Still Traumatic for Mothers at 20 Years
Rwanda Genocide Looks at Allies and Bystanders at 20 Year Anniversary
North Korea Elections for Parliament
North Korea as Bad as Nazis Says UN and China Says to Bug Off
Holocaust Repeated in Ukraine?
Ukraine Jews Flee?
Holocaust Denied Can Be Repeated
Holocaust Survivor Beats Odds
Anna Ornstein Presentation at Temple Israel Boston, May 11, 2014
Holocaust Encyclopedia, The United States Holocaust Museum
My Mother’s Eyes, autobiography by Anna Ornstein
The author gratefully acknowledges the collaboration and able assistance of Guardian Liberty Voice (GLV) team members Brent Matsalla and Leigh Haugh.