PBS has a three part series entitled US and Holocaust. After seeing the first episode, I recommend that they change the title to: “Hard to Watch, But You Should: US and the Holocaust.”
It is simply heart wrenching. We get a ringside seat to the Nazi version of the death-fueled activities at the Roman Colosseum. It was especially painful watching the early oppression of the Jews and knowing that it was only going to become more sinister.
And very few were willing to help them. The Jews became a people without any country to protect them.
President Roosevelt tried to lead a country to save the Jews, but his constituents had little interest in sparing the “other” from their horrendous fate. For the German people, it is simply incomprehensible. For Americans, it is inexcusable, it is heartless, it is cruel, it is unthinkable, it is understandable.
Humans and most mammals have an innate fear of “other.” And Jews, with their different religion, different language, and different customs in those days were “other.” Remaining isolated from “other,” allows us to ignore their humanity.
By separating people into “other” we are able to ignore appalling acts; or worse, participate in them. In America, we have the days of Jim Crow to remind us that we are capable of turning a blind eye to despicable behavior.
Admittedly the Holocaust came at a difficult time, America was in a numbing depression. A depression that left a permanent scar on the country. Many Americans could not feed themselves, and the thought of caring for the “other,” when they were starving was unimaginable. There was also virulent antisemitism, especially among influential leaders and some clergy. And most Americans agreed with their leaders because they only “knew” Jews through caricatures. According to the documentary, over 85% of Christians and even 25% of American Jews turned a blind eye to the plight of the Jews.
It is a permanent stain on America. And this documentary makes that clear.
I think that many of us wonder what we would have done. We hope that we would have reacted with the better angels of our nature.
I wonder about myself.
I have pretty good credentials as being someone who would stand up against this oppression. My late husband was Jewish, and my daughter is half Jewish. All of my friends in NY and NJ were Jewish. Since my teens, I have been a vociferous activist for equal rights, attending protest rallies for women’s and civil rights.
But everyone has a powerful fear of “other;” it is in our DNA.
When Jeff and I married, Jewish-Christian marriages were still relatively uncommon. We experienced discrimination, and 100% of it was directed at me. I was an “other.” My husband’s Jewish Country Club would not let me in the women’s locker room. I had difficulty enrolling my daughter in a Temple preschools. The Conservative Temple refused entry (because in the Jewish faith, the mother determines the religion, and I did not wish to convert). The Reform Temple, which had opened its preschool to all children, made it clear that she would never be considered Jewish, or be allowed to attend Hebrew School, unless I converted. My husband and I rolled our eyes at sermons proclaiming interfaith marriages to be a diaspora to the Jewish people. There were a number of similar, trivial transgressions. But they didn’t bother us; because his family welcomed me with open arms full of love; I belonged in his family. To them, I was never an “other.”
(Parenthetically, this treatment seems to be unique to my area; my sister who lived in DC was allowed to send her children to Hebrew school and was even allowed near the bimah during their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.)
Of course, what I experienced is trivial compared to the treatment of the Jews throughout history. But the point is simple…everyone, even those who have been treated as “other” for so long in an excruciating history of pogroms, oppressions, humiliations, inquisitions, displacements, and exterminations, are not immune to their DNA.
So, would I have been one of the better angels? Or would I have gone along with the crowd? I will never know; I can only hope that I would have done the right thing. But I do know had this happened after I met my Jewish friends and became a part of my husband’s Jewish family, I would have done anything to protect them. Anything!
And that is the other thing that we share as a species, our love is always stronger than our fear.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.