Lessons from the Holocaust

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Daniel E.F. Liddicoet
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
The cyclical nature of human history has seen the recurrence of great tragedy repeated time and again. Wherever hatred and intolerance have been permitted, death and destruction have inevitably followed. Without doubt the most abhorrent example of such senseless carnage occurred during the roughly 12-year period in Europe known as the Holocaust. During that time, the world bore witness to the systematic extermination of approximately 6 million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Even out of such unspeakable horror, there are still lessons that can be learned as we reflect on the nature of our global society and the foundational elements that led to such an awful fate.

In the hopes of spreading that understanding, historian Dr. Gail Wallen, director of the military program for the Holocaust Survivors of Southern Arizona, recently visited Holloman AFB accompanied by two survivors of the Holocaust, to share their harrowing yet inspirational stories.

Lily Brull, the first survivor to address Holloman's Airmen, was 10 years old at the start of her Holocaust experience. Brull escaped with her family from her birthplace of Antwerp, Belgium, shortly after the Nazis invaded in 1940. She then embarked on a terrifying three-year odyssey, as her family desperately sought to evade the advances of the German war machine spreading across Europe.

Wanda Wolosky, born in Warsaw, Poland, was the second survivor accompanying Dr. Wallen. Wolosky was just five years old when the Nazis seized control of Poland and began forcing the Jews to live within the confined quarters and deplorable conditions of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. Young Wanda and her mother began a high-wire act of survival as they struggled to persevere within the hellish landscape imposed upon their people.

The seeds of the Holocaust, as Dr. Wallen stressed, were sown in the fertile soil of centuries-old hatred and discrimination. In the case of the Jews, it was a combination of political, economic and psychological ostracization that was eventually catalyzed by German post-World War I desperation, the need for a scapegoat, and the Nazis' willingness to exploit these conditions for an ideological advantage.

"Genocide begins with name-calling and setting people apart because of their differences instead of celebrating them," explained Wallen. "When we allow the abnormalities like hate in society to become the norms, we've already moved down in some respect. We have to balance those credences, and understand that we live in a democracy where there are tensions, but how we deal with those tensions is what's important."

The groundwork for tragedy had been laid upon a contempt for the Jews that was so deeply-rooted that even children were overcome by feelings of malice.

As Wolosky recalls from her own experience, "One day in Warsaw, as I was walking by I saw that all the other children were so happy. They were dancing, yelling and screaming in the street. When I asked them what happened, they told me they were celebrating because the Germans had caught a Jewish engineer and shot him. I couldn't understand how kids could be so hateful, and so happy to see somebody getting killed."

Fueled by an intolerance for the Jews that had already penetrated the collective consciousness of German society, the Nazis began a concerted campaign to de-humanize and stigmatize an entire race, religion and culture.

As Wallen described, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 set in motion a bureaucracy of oppression that methodically began to set Jews apart from Germans on every level. Jews saw their nationality stripped away, as even those who had loyally served in the German military were soon identified only as 'Jew' in their passports. The basis for such classification could often stretch back as far as four generations.

Persecution of the Jews was not only a political expedient, but also a fundamental tenet of the Nazi myth of Aryan racial purity - the idea that a specific set of genetic characteristics such as blonde hair or blue eyes signified a desirable ancestry that would ensure the glorious national destiny of Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Nazi propagandists worked tirelessly to further marginalize the Jews, promoting the image of them as an unclean blight on their otherwise authentic and civilized culture.

In spite of these efforts, however, many Jews refused to relinquish their faith and humanity, calling upon a source of strength much deeper within themselves.

"Somehow fate was hanging over you," said Brull. "What can you do to fight fate? All the while we just had to keep this 'God will help' feeling' inside of us."

Mere survival was seen as an act of defiance by the Nazis, yet many Jews still heroically chose to rebel against their oppressors, even at the risk of their own lives.

"Because of where we were living so high up," Wolosky recalls. "I could see the whole sky turn red, the ghetto was burning. I snuck up one day to the wall, I was standing looking out over it, and I was crying because I could hear the shooting and the fighting. With all my heart I wanted to be over there. I wanted to fight, I wanted to help, I was a small kid, I probably couldn't have done anything, but I was so proud that they stood up, that they did something. From that day on I made myself a promise - that nobody ever got to see me cry, that I'm going to be strong, and that I'm going to survive."

Such simple acts of courage inspired hope in a world of utter desolation and despair, but, as Wallen explained, they were scarcely echoed across the globe.

In fact, she recounted, in 1939 the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying 937 German Jews, was denied entry by every nation where it sought refuge, including the United States. In the tragic aftermath of such indifference, the Jews aboard the St. Louis were dispersed back into Europe, where many of them were eventually killed in concentration camps. The plight of the Jews was met largely with apathy by the rest of the freedom-loving world, when even the slightest gesture of support or human decency would have meant the difference between life and death.

While the world can never undo the mistakes and injustices of the Holocaust, Wallen maintains optimism that change can be effected in the future.

"Silence is an acquiescence," she said. "We have to speak out in the face of hatred and oppression. I believe this generation is going to play a very important part in making sure that 'never again' truly means never again."

Only when the lessons of history are properly understood can the cycle of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry that lead to such atrocities be broken.

"Did we learn the lessons?" posed Wallen. "I think the military plays a very pivotal role; in Germany, the military's allegiance became instrumental to the execution of Hitler's plan. You owe your allegiance to a piece of paper called the Constitution of the United States. You are the gatekeepers of democracy, it is your responsibility to protect and defend those who cannot defend themselves. Please know that your role is precious and very important, it is why you fight."

Internalizing the errors of the past, and becoming aware of the hateful conditions that create genocide are keys to preventing their perpetuation.

"It was a true honor to be reminded of why we serve," said 1st Lt. Devora Ortega, 49th Force Support Squadron action officer and attendee of Dr. Wallen's briefing. "We fell into a vulnerable situation where humanity was taken for granted and I hope that one day we can ban together to overcome that."

Words once spoken by the recently-deceased revolutionary and philanthropist, Nelson Mandela, embolden the world with hope as we all strive for a better tomorrow:

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."