Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.
As darkness goes, the Holocaust was pretty dark.
There were 6 million Jews. There were also 5 million ‘others’. (Those who were deemed to be ‘racially inferior’ or ‘degenerates’ – Slavs, Roma Gypsies, disabled people, gay and lesbian people, anyone of African descent, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists and many more.) All of them killed en masse by the Nazis, and their collaborators, during World War II.
I didn’t really understand the horrors of World War II until I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was a similar age to her at the time when I read it. Her story impacted me deeply.
Later, I read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Holocaust, and then was imprisoned for it. Unlike many of her family members, she survived Ravensbruck death camp, determined to share what she had learned there: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still,” and “God will give us the love to be able to forgive our enemies.”
I remember feeling challenged: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others? Did I believe that there was no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still?
Then I watched Schindler’s List, the film about the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees, by employing them in his factories.
Again, I found myself asking: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?
More recently, I came across Nicky’s Family, the film about Nicholas Winton, sometimes called the ‘British Schindler’. It tells of how he organised the rescue of hundreds of Czech and Slovak children on the Kindertransport, just before the outbreak of World War II. After the war, he didn’t tell anyone about his wartime rescue efforts. It was not until fifty years later, when his wife found a suitcase in the attic, full of identity documents and transport plans, that his moving story emerged.
Watching the film through tears, I once again found myself asking: Would I be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?
Corrie Ten Boom, Oskar Schindler and Nicholas Winton all inspire me. There is something about their courage and bravery; their selflessness and sacrifice; their willingness to risk everything for the sake of others.
It’s hard to believe that all of them regretted they didn’t do more, that they didn’t help more people.
Yet, to quote Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing,” and, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
I’m glad that Ten Boom and Schindler and Winton didn’t do nothing. I’m glad they did the little they could. I’m glad they give us something to remember today.
The problem is that, all too often, good men do do nothing, and evil does indeed succeed.
We’re comfortable and complacent.
We’re not prepared to risk anything, let alone everything, for the sake of others.
Hugo Rifkind, in reflecting on a visit to Auschwitz, puts it so well: “You go, you see, and you acknowledge that horror can happen, and it can be vast, and that people can live just down the road from it, and pretend it isn’t there. And then you swear to yourself that you won’t ever allow yourself to forget – although a better word, really, would be “suppress” – that this can happen, and did happen, and could, should we ever allow ourselves to stop talking about it, happen again.”
From year to year, this horrific period in history recedes a little further into the past. But it’s important to remember.
For the sake of those who died.
For the sake of those who survived.
For the sake of their descendants.
For the sake of those, like Ten Boom and Schindler and Winton, who risked their lives to help.
For the sake of those, today, who are victims of persecution and genocide.
It’s important to remember because it reminds us to ask: Would we, would you, would I, be willing to risk everything for the sake of others?
God forbid that such a mass destruction of human life should ever happen again.