I recently had a conversation with a family member, someone who my respect for, until recently was unquestionable. In discussing today’s political climate, this relative tried to convince me that I was an alarmist. This relative made sounds of “what can you do?”, “We can’t change anything.” Effectively arguing that we should all just lay back and take it. This attitude pisses me off. I’ll tell you why.
Elie Wiesel, the Romanian born Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Laureate wrote of his experiences in Auschwitz in his 1958 book, Night. The book, which I highly recommend, recounts a young Elie’s abduction by Fascists from his village to the death camps of the Nazi Reich. Wiesel himself says in the preface that if he had only one book to write in his lifetime, it would have been Night.
I read Night as an undergrad at the University of Texas and was struck by it. It is one of the most important books I have read during my entire college career, possibly during my lifetime. However, what the book truly did was anger me. When the fascists came to Sighet, the village in Transylvania where Elie and his family made their home, they deported all the foreign Jews, loading them onto rail cars and taking them out of Hungary and into Poland. “What do you expect, that’s war….” Elie describes, though the eyes of a vagrant Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who escaped the Nazis by feigning death in a pile of bodies, the scene in the forest in Poland where Jewish men and boys were forced to dig their own graves, and the Gestapo, systematically murdering them there in the forest, “…without passion or haste.” Moishe describes infants tossed in the air as target practice. He describes Malka, a young woman who lay dying for three days, and Tobie, begging to die before his sons were murdered by the Germans.
Elie says that the Jews in the village thought Moishe was mad – even as fascists attacked Jews and their interests on a daily basis around the country. Then the Germans showed up again making a show of congeniality, which caused the villagers to further deride Moishe as an alarmist.
Then on the seventh day of Passover in 1943, the proclamations began. The first edict: Jews were prohibited from leaving their residences for three days, under penalty of death. That same day, the second edict: Jews were forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities, under penalty of death. The third decree: Every Jew had to wear a yellow star. “The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…” Elie’s father said. Then came the restrictions to restaurants, rail travel, to the attending of synagogue, the forced relocation to the ghettos and finally, the rail cars. The Hungarian police collaborated with the Nazis, spreading abuse throughout the ghetto. The Jewish police collaborated with the Hungarian police.
Throughout all this the village elders, and Elie’s father in particular were resigned …no… not resigned…they were passive. Giving power over their lives to people with evil intent, even knowing that these people had evil intent. “As far as I’m concerned, this whole business of deportation is nothing but a big farce.” “Who knows, they may be sending us away for our own good?” “They just want to steal our valuables and jewelry … so much easier to do when the owners are on vacation…” The delusions continued. Ultimately, Elie’s mother, father and three sisters all died in the camps.
What I brought back from Night was an intense hatred. Not for the Nazis, that hatred I have always held. But for the cowardice of the elders. For the passivity of giving in to evil. The elders of Sighet were, as far as I am concerned, equally guilty of war crimes as the Fascists, having led their people to slaughter, either knowingly or negligently.
Alderney, Amersfoort, Arbeitsdorf, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Banjica, Bardufoss, Bełżec, Berga, Thuringia, Bergen-Belsen, Berlin-Marzahn, Bernburg, Bogdanovka, Bolzano, Bredtvet, Breendonk, Breitenau, Buchenwald, Chełmno, Kulmhof, Crveni krst, Dachau, Drancy, Falstad, Flößberg, Flossenbürg, Fort de Romainville, Fort VII (Poznań), Fossoli, Grini, Gross-Rosen, Herzogenbusch, Vught, Hinzert, Jägala, Janowska, Lwów, Jasenovac, Kaiserwald, Mežaparks, Kaufering/Landsberg, Kauen, Kaunas, Kemna, Klooga, Koldichevo, Langenstein-Zwieberge, Le Vernet, Majdanek, KZ Lublin, Malchow, Maly Trostenets, Mauthausen-Gusen, Mechelen, Mittelbau-Dora, Mittelsteine, Natzweiler-Struthof (Struthof), Neuengamme, Niederhagen, Oberer Kuhberg, Ohrdruf, Oranienburg, Osthofen, Płaszów, Ravensbrück, Risiera di San Sabba, Trieste, Sachsenhausen, Sajmište, Salaspils (Kirchholm), Skrochowitz, Skrochovice, Sobibór, Soldau, Stutthof, Theresienstadt, Terezín, Treblinka, Vaivara, Warsaw, WesterborkWe.
As a free people must never forget these names and what happened there. We must also never forget that it was the complacency of the world that allowed such places to exist, a desire to not see the evil men behind them. The Nobel committee called Wiesel a “messenger to mankind.” I look at this country today and I see that the message has been forgotten.
We have no good excuse. We were warned. Men like, Moe and Curly Howard, along with Larry Fine were our Beadles, and were men we thought mad. American entertainer Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator (1940) pointed to the evils of the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy when the regimes had widespread support in the United States. In what is arguably one of the greatest monologues in the history of entertainment, Chaplin, in the guise of the Jewish Barber, the doppelganger of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel beseeches; “Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”
In spite of overwhelming odds, the Barber stands before all the Reich of Tomainia and declares; “In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.”
That is the message we must take to heart. That is the message of the revolution, of the renaissance. That is, if we do not let it die by letting yet another machine man, another demagogue and strong man take the reins of this nation. If we do not let the dream of America die through negligence and by giving up on the idea that WE THE PEOPLE are the power of this nation.
The Irish political philosopher and father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke said, “One that confounds good and evil is an enemy to the good.” Today so many in this country confound evil and good. They conflate actions of hate with actions that increase their safety. They pass lies, because they fit their dogma and then justify their behavior with their dogma. After all, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, and it is so easy to not seek confrontation with one’s fellows.
Bold people throughout history have known this. Even in situations that were apparently hopeless, courageous people have stood up to evil and resisted it. The White Rose, a group of German intellectuals, mostly 20-somethings, many of them former Hitler Youth, published anti-Nazi pamphlets and graffiti. The Reich executed three of the leaders for their actions. Does that make them any less heroic in the face of evil? The Italian Resistance Movement resisted the fascism of Mussolini, and after the armistice with the allies, of the Nazi occupiers, repelling the Germans from Rome briefly until the Panzergrenadieres were reinforced and General Giorgio Carlo Calvi di Bergolo surrendered the Italian forces. The French Resistance is legendary. Robin Hood, Jesus Malverde, The Three Musketeers, Han, Luke, Leia, even our legends, our literature is filled with heroes resisting evil and totalitarianism against all odds.
I will never be a resister of evil in the vein of Gandhi, Rustin Bayard, or Martin Luther King. I do not believe that passive resistance is always successful. I do not accept that non-violence is the only solution. At the same time, I will not be a revolutionary in the sense of throwing on the khakis and taking to the hills. Revolution is a young man’s game, and I am not sure I have ever been a young man. That said, I will always, always speak out against evil, even violently speak out against it. I will stand on the rooftop and point out evil until my voice is taken from me by force. I will burn bridges. I will end relationships with people who support evil, or through their inaction allow evil to come to power.
I know why you did it. You were scared. You were lied into believing that this way of life, whatever that is, was threatened by …the others. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that Sinclair Lewis was right. “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” For these two things, more than any other, “patriotism” and “religion” blind people to the truth more than just about anything else does. Fascism will also not be wearing an easily recognizable uniform. No, the Fascists learned from their mistakes in the 1930’s. No Silvershirts here again. It will be wearing a suit and tie and it will be voted into office through either your actions, or your inaction, the “well-meaning” American who, because you cannot see through the fog of dogma, has confounded evil, with good.
The full text of “Night” can be found here: http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/523476/26270953/1432918801417/eliewiesel-nightfulltext_3_26_2014_3_23_04_pm.pdf?token=nqDXL9%2BimLMvcyN4BUHLIYA%2B%2F9A%3D
The Great Dictator Soliloquy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8HdOHrc3OQ