This is the second year I have been asked to speak on the subject of the Holocaust here at our little college in the deep mountains. I am honored and I am humbled. Thank you for having me.
Tonight I will ask some questions and then I will try to answer them. The questions will be short, the answers longer. I will not restrain myself to academic formality tonight, so my apologies if I lapse into emotion, into agony and wrath. There is much to account for because tonight we speak of evil and of the victims of that evil.
When my grandparents were children a democratic-republic in central Europe collapsed into one-party rule. There was little meaningful resistance to this revolution at the time.
By the time my grandparents were in their early teens this central European state had conquered without war vast tracks of eastern Europe, justifying it in terms of reunion even though it was creating a polity of a type that had never existed before.
When my grandparents were teenagers this central European state was rampaging across three continents – to the west they conquered, and to the east, and the south, and the north. Violence they brought this time, fire and murder and steel. What they could not conquer they hurled weapons against; what they could conquer they stole. They were ruthless. Land, they cried, we must have land, and the dull soil must give to the breaking waves!
At the same time they were writing laws, always writing laws, but the laws were not just. They were cruel and insane and vile. Men, the laws declared, are not created equal – they are not endowed with certain inalienable rights – they are not entitled to equal protection under the law.
When my grandparents were young adults there was a great war, a war fought in every ocean, and in the air, in deserts and tundra and forests and fields and cities by folk from every continent and horrible machines that rendered soldiers into demons and sailors into leviathans. But within the central European state and the lands that it held something insidious was happening, a secret that was not a secret and men and women began to disappear, first behind cloth and paper, later behind brick and stone, and later still into the black smoke that hung over all the world.
When my grandparents were in their late twenties men in olive green business suits charading as uniforms were tearing apart the central European state, rolling it up like a rotten carpet, exposing the horrors swept under the cloth. And some of these men found camps, places of barbed wire and concrete and angry dogs and bastards with skulls on their hats and in these places, these little gates to little hells, they found many men and women and children. Some of them were among the living dead. Others, I fear, were simply dead.
And the men in olive wept, and they shared their bread, and my people, the American people, began to understand the greatest of sins, the foulest of goblins, the demon Genocide.
The war ended. Five years later my parents were born. Twenty-six years after that, I was born. Thirty-three years after that my niece was born. Three years after that is now.
There were butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers.
There were painters and dancers, musicians and writers.
There were businessmen and nuns, politicians and housewives.
There were cooks and waiters, barkeeps and brothel-owners.
There were scientist and mathematicians and poets.
There were soldiers and servants, police and convicts.
There were philosophers and rabbis and priests.
There were liberals and conservatives and communists.
There were cantors and pastors, diplomats and whores, those who knew love, those who knew forbidden loves, and those who knew nothing of love.
There were sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces.
There were children and old men, crones and babies, lovers and fools, saints and sinners.
And I ask you, were it not for their names, or their faiths, or their allegiances, well-confirmed behind cloth badges and in elaborate documents, who would know the killer from the killed save by their acts?
There were butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers
The goal was plain to hear, to read, or to see to anyone willing to know it. There were peoples. These peoples were, apparently, Wrong. Some of them loved the Wrong People. Others worshiped in the Wrong Way. Yet others held to the Wrong Philosophies, flew the Wrong Flags, went to the Wrong Meetings. And some made that most grievous mistake of having the Wrong Ancestors.
Such poor choices.
And the goal, my friends, was to destroy these wrong people.
But not just to destroy. Pull out the weed but leave the root, the idea of the weed, and it shall sprout again. No, the Wrong were not merely to be destroyed in body. The Wrong must, it was decided, be purged from the consciousness of the Right, their beliefs ridiculed and twisted and ultimately discarded as myth. Murder? No, the Right did not commit murder – they dehumanized their enemies first, made them un-human, mere animals to be used up and discarded whenever it was useful. There is no murder where there are no men and women and children – only a bit of slaughter, a culling of the herd.
And so the Right told the Wrong what they must wear, and what they might not wear.
And so the Right told the Wrong they may not do certain jobs.
And so the Right told the Wrong that they may not live in certain places.
And so the Right told the Wrong that they may not go certain places.
And so the Right told the Wrong that they must never leave certain places.
And so the Right told the Wrong that they must get onto trains.
And the Right took the Wrong and they stripped them of their clothes, and the Wrong were shorn of their hair.
And the Right took the property of the Wrong, what little they had managed to carry onto the trains.
And the Right divided the Wrong into those who would die now and those would linger as slaves.
Those to the left were poisoned and burnt while music played.
Those to the right were robbed of their names, emblazoned now with numbers in dark blue ink under pale skin. They were clothed in sackcloth and they worked until they fell dead, or they were murdered on a whim, or
until the men in olive uniforms came, and found them.
The Right ran away, and the men in olive and the men and women and children in sackcloth ran together.
And they wept.
It happened in Germany and Austria.
But it also happened in France and Italy and Denmark and Bosnia and Latvia and Poland and the Netherlands and Belgium and Norway and the Czech Republic and Albania and Serbia and Bulgaria and Romania and Hungary and Moldova and Lithuania and Estonia and Russia and the Ukraine and Belarus and Greece.
Of course it had happened before, to different people. And again, to others.
There are, I am told, seven deadly sins.
Lust is one of these. To lust is to crave carnal desires, to be overwhelmed by the biological desires that scream through our blood on the wings of hormones and our baser instincts. This is why we rape and ravage and destroy needlessly. This is why we crave violence and fear – in others, usually, that we may experience them without threat to our persons. This is why we push the weak aside like the cuckoo fledgling that murders its weaker adopted siblings, pushing their eggs or their flailing bodies from the nest.
The evil kill and rape and dominate because it sates, for a time, their primal urge to do harm.
Gluttony is another of the sins – it entails the willful consumption of more than one, or a people, needs merely to satisfy one’s base desires regardless of the needs of others. To be gluttonous is the steal from the weak to feed the strong.
The evil consume all that they come across because it is, they imagine, their right – they are gluttons because they could be.
ENVY and Avarice are the third and fourth sins. The greedy covet that which is not theirs, that which they did not build, that which they have no title to, that which justice would deny them. They see their neighbor prosper through their work and curse them.
The evil are thieves, whether sneaking or bullying, they are rapacious.
SLOTH is the fifth sin. The slothful refuse to work, refuse to do their share, refuse to earn their keep – they prefer to live as parasites, exploiting the labors of others, repaying them only in disdain. They refuse to improve themselves – they malinger in their intellectual, moral, and physical filth.
The evil are lazy and in their laziness are compelled to steal what is not theirs.
PRIDE is the sixth sin. Those who have submitted to hubris have decided that they must be not merely great, but greater than others – they build not to build, but to dominate the minds, spirits, and wills of others. They seek not to lead, but to rule; not to accomplish but to eclipse.
The evil are prideful and willingly tear down the works of others, and their person, that they may stand a little taller.
The seventh sin is WRATH. All of us desire things which we do not have; all of us desire not to experience cruelties we nonetheless must experience. In pain we are born, in pain we live, and in pain we die. The dissonance between our desires and our reality constantly threatens to push aside our minds and unleash pure, unadulterated hatred. And if this is allowed, it must have vent.
The evil are wrathful and they unleash their rage at not being gods upon those who they may – the weak.
These are the sins of the genocides. They are complex, overlapping, unequal in their portion in different men, different women, and different children, but collectively they are the sins of the genocides. This is true not only in the case of the Germans and their allies, of whom we have spoken tonight, but of all genocides, no matter their race, no matter their faith, no matter their language, no matter their politics. They are filth not because of some inherent flaw, but because they unrepentantly sin.
But these sins are not enough. The genocides may be resisted, their lust opposed, their cravings denied, their wrath opposed. To do this is, fundamentally, the duty of the just, if they are worthy of the name. And this is why there is another sin we must speak of. A sin too often left off the lists of the great faiths and the tableaus of stained glass or paint.
Apathy is its common name, a willingness to accede to the wills of others, knowing that their wills are evil, their intentions vile, without resisting. It is not a sin of commission, but of omission – it is the sin of looking the other way, of ignoring the weak in their moment of dire straits.
The genocides, it seems, must carry the knife, but the world must look away. And this, my friends, is the foul truth.
Holocaust is not merely a historic phenomenon. It is not an artifact of the past. It is not a conceptual horror. It is real and it continues. It may be stopped, but only if we confront it. We must, individually and collectively, realize certain truths to achieve this, however:
The human capacity to sin is absolutely a part of our makeup and it shall never be purged – to purge it would necessitate the greatest genocide imaginable.
The only manner in which we can imagine eliminating genocide is through education – education allows us not to be free of the impulses that compel us towards cruel policies, but it does allow us to overcome those impulses. We are responsible for speaking truth – truth to the weak, truth to the power – knowing there are sometimes consequences for this and accepting them readily.
When others refuse education or are denied it and, giving in to their horrible impulse, throw themselves into the business of genocide we must resist them, each in our own way, but actively and without fail.
When all is done, and order is restored, we must find a way to forgive the genocides. Otherwise we ourselves, or our descendants, will seize upon that grain of hatred and it shall blossom into a pearl of wrath and the cycle shall again envelope us.
Let us now take a minute to sit or stand, as the mood takes us, and hold vigil. Let us honestly spend a moment in mourning and lamentation. Let us remember and, when we’re ready, forgive. If you pray, by all means pray. If you don’t pray, by all means, meditate. Later, tonight, go home, sleep, rest, find peace. We have work to do tomorrow.
Thank-you. Good evening.