I don’t claim to be an historian, but I do like to study history. It is true what your teachers always told you: If you don’t study history, you’ll be doomed to repeat it. I only wish someone would have given me an equally strong argument for studying algebra, because to this day I can’t understand why I had to suffer through that particular indignity.
When I tell people that my grandparents were born in the 19th century and my father in 1918, they look at me very carefully wondering just how much work I’ve had done. The answer is none. Apparently, at age 45, my dad was still hip and virile enough to pull ‘er back and let ‘er rip, and, well, here I am. My father was one of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, World War II Purple Heart and all. The man had seen some stuff. So while most of my friends had dads who could actually do things with them like swimming, shooting hoops, or playing catch, my dad was good at telling me how to do those things while reminiscing about his days as a young athlete. It wasn’t all bad, though. Two distinct advantages of having an elderly father—wisdom and history.
I get my love of history from him, and though he himself was a Civil War aficionado, I claim to be the familial doyenne of the World War II era—specifically the European Theater. With that love of learning about the history of the Second World War, I have developed—through years of teaching—a fascination with the Holocaust.
I realize that the word ‘fascination’ has a rather light-hearted tone to it, but I’m at a loss to find a better way to describe my interest. It is not an obsession; more like a pursuit. If you truly study the Holocaust (like a real historian, not like an Indiana housewife), you really have to go all the way back to the Jewish Diaspora of the 6th century BC. I like history, but my knowledge of the Biblical era is pitiful if not downright shameful and is best left to my husband, the Bible scholar. That’s why my Holocaust history begins with the 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
In short, after World War I (my knowledge of which is limited to having read All Quiet on the Western Front and watching Downton Abbey) the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles left Germany with no economy, no military, and, most frightening of all, no stable government. With that dearth of structure and lack of confidence in the various political parties in the Fatherland, Germans were ready to listen to anyone, even an extremist like Adolf Hitler. Hitler essentially told the beleaguered Germans that if they simply put all of their faith and trust in him, he would solve all the complex problems of a post World War I Germany. When people are hungry, they’ll listen to just about anything.
Hitler found his whipping boy in the Jews. Contrary to what many may think, Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism. It’s been around for awhile. Thus, it was not difficult for him to spread his vitriol throughout Germany; the Jews were used to being picked last for teams. What was most frightening of all, though, and the thing to which we as Americans need to pay very close attention, was the insidious nature of the Nazi’s relentless gathering of information about the Jews. This by no means caught the Jews off guard, but they were somewhat surprised by the ferocity and assiduousness with which the Nazis pursued them.
When I taught my eighth grade students these facts (a necessary scaffolding of information prior to our reading the play The Diary of Anne Frank), their questions were predictable. “Why didn’t the Jews just leave?” Why should they? This was their home. They owned businesses in these towns and they worshipped and attended school there. “Why didn’t they just say they weren’t Jewish?” Some did deny their heritage, but many felt it was a betrayal of their culture to do so, and why should they? They weren’t doing anything wrong. And, the best question of all, “How did the Nazis know who the Jews were?”
My answer to that last question was that the Nazis made it their business to know everybody’s business. The Nazi’s ruthless pursuit of information, their subsequent Nuremburg Laws, and the resulting horror of the “Final Solution” manufactured a hell that is nearly impossible to comprehend. “However,” I calmly soothed my eighth graders, “nothing like this would ever happen here in the United States because we have laws protecting our civil liberties and our rights as citizens. We are blessed to live in a democracy.”
Don’t I feel like a fool today.
It begs the question, how many Americans actually comprehend the serious nature of our government’s escalating interest in and infringement upon our privacy, our rights as citizens to assemble peacefully, and our ability to make our own decisions when it comes to our health, our children, our collective livelihood, and our spirituality? This is it, my friends. Our government is, without apology, stealing our freedom.
My father has been gone for seventeen years. I often wonder what he and others of his generation and of his parents’ generation would think of our government’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution. My father and his parents suffered through some of the worst economic and most frightening eras our modern world has ever seen, so I can only imagine that an imaginary conversation with any of them about today’s federal government would contain portents of a catastrophic collapse of the United States of America.
Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.