ECHOES OF THE HOLOCAUST
There was a widespread silence during the years of the
Holocaust. It was made up both of words that were not spoken and actions that
were not taken. Although the governments of the Allies knew what was happening
in Europe, there was no great outcry--no mass demonstrations in London or
Toronto or New York or Chicago. The average person outside of Europe was hardly
aware that millions of unarmed people were being condemned to death. Newspapers
carried the stories of boatloads of refugees being turned away from Palestine or
from the United States, from Cuba, or from Turkey, but people rarely asked what
would happen to the refugees. They said little about it, thought little of it,
and put no pressure on their governments to act.
As historians unraveled the story of the Holocaust, the
silence was broken. More people made the decision to speak out, to bear witness.
For the Jews it had been a costly lesson, and after the war Jews began to raise
their voices. Jews joined the civil rights movement in the United States; Jewish
women were at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement; Jews took part
in the movement to end the war in Vietnam; and Jews became more active in
When it became known that the Soviet Union was
oppressing three million Jews who were Soviet citizens--making many of them
political prisoners and holding others who wished to leave--Jewish voices were
raised all around the world. Lawyers traveled from the United States to join the
defense of Jews accused of treason there. And non-Jews joined the protests to
governments and the demonstrations that were held on behalf of the Russian Jews.
People no longer felt comfortable standing idly by as events took place that
seemed to recall the Holocaust.
The New Boat People
A good example is the case of the boat people of the
late 1970s. When the Communists took over Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, hundreds
of refugees tried to escape by sea, just as the Jews had done thirty years
before. The "boat people" headed for Thailand, Malaysia, the
Philippines, Indonesia, and China. Some traveled as far as Australia. As before,
although their plight was reported in every major newspaper, it seemed as if no
one would come to their rescue.
Malaysia turned back many boatloads of refugees,
allowing only Cambodian Muslims to land. Hong Kong limited the number of
refugees it would accept from Vietnam and Indochina. The Japanese allowed few
refugees to settle permanently. One boatload made its way from Vietnam to
Singapore where they were turned back, to Yemen on the southern coast of Arabia
where they were sent away, to Japan-- journey of nearly 16,000 miles (26,000
One 20-foot (6.1-m) fishing boat bore twenty-six
refugees from Vietnam. Their leader kept a log in English in which he wrote
about the journey:
Aug. 22: ... I
saw a merchant ship ... heading northeasterly. We tried to reach this ship with
white flag and great hope to be saved. The ship changed course and increased
Aug. 23: ... At
the worst time, the water pump broke down and water kept coming in the boat.
... In such a. situation we saw a weak light. ... Just as seeing heaven,
we headed to the light. ... Many of us were on the verge of fainting [from
hunger and thirst].
Aug. 24: At
daybreak, we found out it was an oil-drilling station. We ... approached her
with white flag and SOS light signal. Nothing could have been more discouraging
when some people signaled for us to go away and when we neared, the rope ladder
was pulled up. [Quoted in R. Chartock and J. Spencer, eds., The
This time, however, the world did not wait to see what
would happen. The United Nations, assisted by voluntary groups and government
agencies, directed rescue efforts. Refugees were resettled in the free nations
of the world, "adopted" by church groups and charities. The new boat
people were saved.
Even in the free world we have seen government policies
enacted that seem like echoes of the Holocaust. During World War II the United
States government set up ten "relocation camps" to imprison 110,000
persons. Most of these people were U.S. citizens; all of them were of Japanese
descent. At the time, of course, the United States was at war with Germany,
Italy, and Japan, and the lessons of the Holocaust were still a thing of the
future. But these detention camps seemed as arbitrary and unjust as any
concentration camp to the people who were forced to live in them.
Only Japanese-Americans were held in camps during the
war. There were never any concentration camps for Italians or Germans in the
United States. Clearly, the Japanese suffered, as the Jews were suffering, from
racism. Like the Jews, it was their "blood" that identified the
Japanese who were removed from their homes and held in detention camps. By an
act of Congress in 1942 these people were defined as anyone with "one-sixteenth
of Japanese blood." This was a shameful moment in the history of a country
that prides itself on freedom, but it never became a Holocaust, and the camps
never became places of starvation or death. In 1944 the United States Supreme
Court declared the relocation camps unconstitutional.
Political prisoners in Russia, before the breakup of the
Soviet Union, fared far worse in the Soviet labor camps of Siberia. Here,
prisoners were treated as slaves. As in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany,
they are worked to exhaustion, underfed, and oppressed. It would seem that the
concentration camp model has not disappeared from society. Nor has slavery
disappeared. Despite international laws it continues to be practiced in parts of
China and central Asia, in Africa, Latin America, and in some of the Arab
Today we are still confronted with the problem of how
to respond to the practice--commonly used by the Nazis--of holding people for
ransom. When Eichmann offered to "sell" Hungarian Jews in return for
things the Nazis wanted he was making a ransom demand. Terrorists often use this
In September 1974, for one example among many, three
Japanese terrorists invaded the French embassy at The Hague in the west
Netherlands. After five days the French government agreed to the terrorists'
demands. They released a Japanese terrorist who was being held in prison in
France, flying him to Syria along with $300,000 in ransom money. In March 1980 a
group of Pakistani terrorists hijacked a Pakistani airliner, successfully
demanding the re lease of 54 political prisoners in Pakistan.
Other governments have refused to deal with terrorists.
The State of Israel set a policy never to give in to terrorist demands. In June
1976, an Air France airliner with about one hundred Israelis aboard was hijacked
and landed at Entebbe airport in Uganda to be held for ransom. But the Israelis
launched a surprise attack on the airport. All the terrorists were killed save
one who was taken captive. One Israeli soldier was killed in the crossfire, and
three of the Israeli passengers were also killed in the barrage of bullets. A
greater number of people had been saved, however, and the Entebbe rescue proved
that fighting back could be an effective way of dealing with terrorists.
The problem remains whether to give in to the demands of
tyrants and terrorists in the hope of saving innocent lives (as many of the Judenrate
did in the years of the Holocaust) or whether to strike back though lives
may be lost. No nation is too big or too small to be faced with this issue. And
that fact was brought home in 1979 when the staff of the American embassy in,
Iran was taken and held hostage for over a year by a revolutionary government
led by a Muslim religious leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Violence or Nonviolence
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to arise
out of a study of the Holocaust is the question of when to take up arms and
fight. Jewish partisans, resistance fighters, and armed freedom fighters made a
choice for violence--to strike back against the Germans although they knew they
could not win. Many other Jews made a choice for nonviolence. They died
believing their God would right the evil that was being done. The choice was not
only whether or not to fight, but also how to fight.
Many people believe that nonviolence is the only real
answer. Violence can only lead to total war, they say, and total war may mean
the destruction of humankind. One of the first political leaders to demonstrate
the power of nonviolence was Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), an Indian statesman.
Gandhi said that one must meet unfair treatment with "passive resistance,"
including civil disobedience and fasting. (At times he fasted for weeks in
protest against unfair laws or unjust leaders.) As the attention of the world
focused on his hunger strikes, Gandhi believed, his opponents would be forced to
listen to him. Thus, Gandhi taught that suffering should never be inflicted upon
the enemy, it should be used upon one’s self.
Gandhi's nonviolent resistance was very successful. He
first used it when the South African government passed anti-Indian laws. Within
a few years the government gave in to Gandhi and agreed to lift these laws and
end discrimination against Indians. Later Gandhi used his form of resistance in
India to force the British there to give up much their power in favor of a
democratic home rule. He was an important leader in India when the Second World War
broke out, though his efforts against the British would not bear fruit until
after the end of the war.
Gandhi hated Nazism. At the same time, he also hated war. He
therefore maintained that no war should be fought against Germany. He said that the world--including
the Jews--should employ nonviolent resistance against Hitler.
Gandhi's approach relied on the power of moral example.
In nonviolent resistance, the victim sets the example, and sooner or later the
persecutor is forced by the weight of public opinion to back down. (This idea
was later used by some leaders of the civil rights movement in the United
States, particularly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Yet in the ghettos and camps of the Holocaust, millions
had set an example of moral courage through nonviolent resistance--without any
effect at all on Nazi policy or behavior. Moreover, Gandhi himself was killed by
an assassin--as was Dr. King in the United States.
The difference may be one of moral education. People who
are striving to do what is just are better prepared to see the point of
nonviolent resistance. But those who have little education, or have been raised
in systems based on racism, may have lost the ability to reason objectively. They
often hear only what they wish to hear, and believe only what they wish to
believe. And, educated or not, people do not always reason well when they are
caught in desperate circumstances. As we have seen, the Germans after World War
I were ready to accept any solution that promised to better their condition.
Like other issues which the Holocaust and its parallels
have raised, the issue of how to resist injustice remains with us.
In a sense, all the questions raised by the Holocaust
remain. Racism, prejudice, terrorism, slavery, violence or nonviolence, the
proper limits to free speech--all these and more are issues that face us day by
The newly revised and updated edition of
The Holocaust: An End to Innocence
is now available
in paperback and Kindle.
“Seymour Rossel, a
long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important
contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare
and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter
is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.” — David
Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum
of Jewish Heritage, New York