One of the most disturbing and paradoxically important questions to arise out of the ashes of the Holocaust is not so much the question of why six million Jews and millions of others were systematically annihilated by the Nazis, but the question of “what if…?”
What if more people had stood up in the face of the Nazi tyranny to say “no” to anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry?
What if there had been more righteous gentiles in countries across Europe willing to take the risk of hiding and protecting their Jewish neighbors?
What if there had been more countries like Bulgaria, who refused to hand over their Jewish populations on the orders of Hitler and his Third Reich?
The short answer, of course, is that more lives would have been saved, that fewer victims would have suffocated in the Nazi gas chambers. We know from history, and particularly the Holocaust, that whenever and wherever good people stood up to defy the genocidal ambitions of the Nazis, Jews lived, Catholics lived, homosexuals lived, Roma lived, and others lived.
Of course, the bigger “what ifs” involve larger questions. What if Winston Churchill’s words were heeded early on in the 1930s before Hitler had amassed huge military strength? What if the U.S. had not retreated into isolationism after World War I? What if the League of Nations had real authority early on to stand up to German aggression? There are many such larger historical questions that need to be asked.
But for me as a survivor who was rescued by a caring and compassionate woman, I think of the question on a more personal, individual level.
Jews around the world commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day or Yom HaShoah as it is known in Hebrew, on April 7 this year. It is at this time of year that we light candles and remember the six million whose lives were cut short by the Nazis.
We also take a moment to reflect on the nature of hatred, and ask why and how so many people could so blindly follow the orders of a genocidal lunatic in his single-minded purpose of persecuting and killing millions of innocent men, women and children.
As a survivor, I often think about the more than 1.5 million children who perished, and how I might have been counted among them were it not for the heroic actions of a poor, illiterate Catholic Polish woman who I was fortunate enough to have as my nanny.
In 1941, when the order came for Jews to be assembled into the Ghetto in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, this good and simple woman offered to take me from my parents, pledging to keep me safe until their return. For the next four years she kept my Jewish identity hidden, had me baptized by a priest and raised me as a Catholic. Her actions saved my life.
Miraculously, my parents survived the Holocaust and returned to reclaim me, their only child, after the war was over. I was only 5 years old by the time, but I have struggled for my entire adult life with the memories and the quandary of why I survived when so many others perished simply because they were Jewish.
This is one of the reasons I devoted my life’s work to the fight against anti-Semitism and hatred. One of the lessons of the Holocaust was that Jews could no longer remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism. We had to speak out to prevent another Holocaust from happening. And we had to encourage other good people to speak out so that we could prevent future acts of hate.
This year, the Anti-Defamation League is commemorating 100 years since our founding in 1913. A great deal has changed since the climate of rampant anti-Semitism that existed in America in the early 20th century, the deep vein of Jew-hatred that spawned the birth of this important institution and ensured its growth through the intervening decades.
Our theme for the centennial is “Imagine A World Without Hate,” which is very much in keeping with the Yom HaShoah question of “what if…?”
As part of our 100th anniversary we produced a short video that took this line of thinking a bit further.
What if Anne Frank had lived? The Holocaust diarist, who was famously hidden in an attic with her family in Amsterdam, had her life cut short after her family’s hiding place in the annex was compromised. She and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they both died of typhus in March 1945.
Anne Frank’s inspiring writings during her time in hiding showed an intellect and sensibility beyond her years.
“What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews,” she observed on May 22, 1944. In July of that year she wrote that, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart … I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions.”
In our video, we take a moment to consider what would have become of Anne Frank had she lived. We know Frank’s voice was silenced. But if she had lived, perhaps she would have gone on to become a voice of conscience, a philosopher, a writer, or perhaps even a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist.
The possibilities, of course, are endless. The same is true with so many other victims of hate crimes: Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Daniel Pearl, Matthew Shepard, Yitzhak Rabin. Each had his life cut short by hatred.
The possibilities of what they might have contributed to society will forever remain a mystery.