“The Holocaust is a watershed event in history- a frightening reminder of the consequence of prejudice and intolerance and of the dangers of silence and apathy. For that reason, the topic is both timely and teachable.”
When The Hiding Place was still in rehearsal, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about the show I was working on. I explained the details, and while I was not really expecting any particular response, I definitely was not prepared for his exasperated, “Why can’t everyone just move on?” At the time, I brushed it off, but it’s been on my mind ever since. I could give you countless reasons why it’s still relevant to examine this period of time, but they all sound like stock answers, so I can only tell you what I think. In a roundabout way, I could see where this guy was coming from; It’s depressing, it’s over, move on. But that’s not the point. The point, I think, is not so much the fascination with the repercussions of cruelty, but the repercussions of kindness.
According to guidelines given to teachers by the United States Holocaust Museum, “A study of the Holocaust raises difficult questions about human behavior, and it often involves complicated answers as to why events occurred.” I think this basically sums it up. There is no way to completely understand what it was like to be a prisoner, or how someone could torture another human being. So, we stop trying after we can’t wrap our head around it. But the real difficulty is the question of courage. If you read about a prison guard killing a prisoner for no reason, it is easy to understand that this is wrong, and something you would never, ever do. Case closed. Bad guys/good guys established. If you read about a family who would have been perfectly safe, if they hadn’t risked helping potential prisoners, you understand that what they did was good; however, how quick are you to know for sure that you would do the same? Suddenly, knowing that you would never hurt someone doesn’t quite make you the good guy, and we don’t like to think that we could somehow end up being the bad guys. It’s uncomfortable, I get that. It’s impossible to be involved in a production like this and not ask some questions of yourself. Would I risk my life, or my life as I know it, to help a stranger? And if I say no, does that make me a bad person? I would like to think that, if it came to it, I would, but I don’t know. This is why I’m in such awe of those who do. The thing we have to keep in mind, however, is that no one sets out to be a hero (Oscar Schindler was a war profiteer before he saved 1700 lives) and when they end up being one, it’s not always rewarded or accepted; sometimes by even themselves.
One of the things I admired so much about the book is that Corrie is so open about her doubts and fears after being arrested. One of her biggest fears was apathy, because she understood why people chose it. “…I saw that stony indifference to others was the most fatal disease of the concentration camp. I felt it spread to myself: how could one survive if one kept on feeling?” That, in and of itself, is reason enough that this story and others like it are timeless. Who doesn’t feel that way sometimes, no matter what the reason? Or, better yet, how many of us don’t even have that excuse? I read once that we are becoming a society that is “over stimulated and underwhelmed.” We are desensitized before we even experience the thing in question, sometimes. When we do care, we’re taught to only let it show so much. There is a responsibility that comes with caring, and we are afraid of that. But we don’t want to be.
One of my bosses is Jewish, and we were talking one day about all of this. I asked if he discussed the Holocaust with his children; if he felt it was important that they learn about it, and he did. Growing up in the 60’s, the Holocaust was rarely discussed, he said. People wanted to keep moving forward. In the 70’s, there seemed to be a shift, with the publication of several books, and a very famous mini-series, Holocaust (with Meryl Streep, of course). It seemed that the world was ready to talk about what had happened, for the most part. But the best part of the conversation was a story he told. I had asked if he had any relatives who had been in the Holocaust, and he said no, but his family friends did. His friend’s mother was hidden in a hole in a barn when she was about 13 years old. The person hiding her was a slightly older teenage girl. She didn’t tell her parents that there was a girl in the barn, as they wouldn’t have let her stay. She would sneak her food and supplies, eventually helping her escape. The girl ended up in the USA, and years later, her children tracked down the Good Samaritan, finding her in Canada. They would fly her in for their bat and bar mitzvahs, claiming they would never have been happening without her. Because of a teenage girl, this family was possible. This reminded me of the story of Peter van Woerden, Corrie ten Boom’s nephew. As a teenager, he aided the Dutch underground in smuggling Jewish children out of Holland. Years later, as a musician, he was on a tour in Israel with his family when he suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to a hospital in Jerusalem and saved. Over his stay, he got to know the staff, eventually sharing stories of the Holocaust, which lead to discovering that the doctor who saved his life had been one of the children Peter had saved many years before. Peter and this girl were just kids themselves, and while they may not have changed history, they changed it for at least two people. The proof is the generations that followed.
Stories like these are awe-inspiring, but before they became great stories, they were acts of kindness by regular people. Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Maybe it seems that great deeds are impossible to live up to. With us, like these people, we can’t know that until the time is upon us. What we are definitely able to do, however, is to be sure to keep our compassion alive. Apathy was an enemy then, and it is now. But it doesn’t have to be. So, why is this story relevant? Speaking for myself, I can say that it’s affected parts of my life, from simply having the longest conversation with my boss that I’ve had in over four years of working with him, to rethinking how I approach things, how I treat people, how open I am to faith. And that’s just me. Maybe it is too difficult to comprehend that people could have been so cruel. However, even as the years pass, the extraordinary kindness of those who chose to help is never lost in translation.