As an educator, I think one of greatest disappointments of my adult life is the realization that education cannot eradicate racism and hatred.
One single piece of evidence shockingly and dramatically illustrates my point: Before the concentration camps and the crematoria were constructed, killing squads in eastern Europe (“Einsatzgruppen”), formed by Himmler, were led by hand-picked PhDs because the Nazis trusted their loyalty and professionalism. They killed a million Jews in face-to-face executions.
If select PhDs from premier universities of Europe’s center of culture could lead 25 brigades to murder men, women and children, what does that say about intellectuals, the life of the mind, and European high culture?
Even more horrifying, these “leaders” of atrocities greatly pleased the crowds in small towns throughout eastern Europe and western Russia who turned out to watch the mass executions of Jews. Children sat on the shoulders of their parents to witness the slaughter of their Jewish neighbors.
The ordinary citizens, simple and uneducated, may have been taught to believe Jews are Christ killers or were brainwashed by one conspiracy theory or another, but what about the elevated minds of the intelligentsia? How could they lead the way to the greatest depravity in the history of man’s inhumanity to man?
Where was Reason, the bedrock of the European Enlightenment? Where was European culture, the pride and proof of sophisticated Europe at its best? The flower of European high culture was, for the Jews, a thorn.
How do Jewish texts account for this unfathomable dichotomy? None directly addresses the issue of discrimination, but there are discussions about the human inclination toward good (yetzer tov) and evil (yetzer hara), and the need for an internal struggle to defeat the capacity for evil in all of us.
There is the unequivocal Biblical declaration that people are created in the image of the divine and are expected to lead a life of holiness: imitatio Dei (imitation of God) – as God is merciful, compassionate and loving, so must we be.
The Torah and Prophets recount the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs, Moses and the great founders of the faith, who were all flawed but who nevertheless accomplished mighty deeds in the physical and the spiritual realm. This is meant to inspire humanity to understand that with all our flaws, we must always be beacons of goodness.
And yet, all of these teachings, examples, principles and role models have not prevented humanity from behaving abominably. In fact, religion has been used throughout history to inflict great suffering in the very name of God! This fact led the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to publish a book titled Not In God’s Name, in which he denounces the very idea of inflicting pain on others in the name of religion as a desecration of the religious mission.
I have come to the painful conclusion that there is no solution to the scourge of antisemitism or the human need to hate. As a comfort, a consolation, a form of hope, however, I think of Holocaust survivors. They, more than anyone, experienced the depths of human evil and yet they show us that evil need not beget evil. They show us that good can always triumph and that the choice is up to each individual.
Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and authored Man’s Search for Meaning, witnessed acts of caring and kindness that proved to him that people do have agency even under the most horrendous and unimaginably bleak circumstances.
Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish philosopher, wrote of creating an additional Jewish commandment that would call for the moral imperative that Jews not give Hitler a posthumous victory. He advocated that Jews commit themselves to carry on the tradition and embrace life and the future.
Simone Veil survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to become a French magistrate, health minister of France and president of the European Parliament. She also was president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah.
In my own community of Toronto, Holocaust survivors like the late Howard Kleinberg, led groups of young Jews on the March of the Living and spoke innumerable times to non-Jewish high school students about his experience in the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism. Howard’s life was a testimonial to life in the face of death, good cheer amidst despair, and a commitment to Jewish thriving no matter the obstacles and disappointments.
In the final analysis, the mutating virus of antisemitism and hatred of all kinds may well be immune to any cure or treatment. But that fact does not absolve good people of all faiths and of no faith of the moral responsibility to live lives of honor and principle, to stand up for compassion and caring for all. Individuals do make a difference and our acts do matter. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Many people choosing goodness over evil and love over hate is the only thing that can change the world for the better. If Holocaust survivors have the hope and courage to make that choice, so can we all.■
The writer is distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish studies program at the University of Waterloo