At Tuesday’s World Values Network Gala at Carnegie Hall, I had the honor of interviewing the United States’ Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, and Sami Steigman, a Holocaust survivor who endured medical experiments.
I asked Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher how old she was when she first learned about the Holocaust.
“That’s a very good question, but I don’t know. But I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know about it. I don’t think I had a full appreciation for it, and what happened to the degree that I have now, living in Warsaw as an Ambassador,” she said.
More than what the Ambassador said stood out to me. It was the sincerity that lingered in her eyes, the sadness that brushed over them when the Holocaust was brought up. It was the pauses she took in between her words, as if in that moment her mind was still trying to understand the gravity of the war crimes, which, as she went on to say are quite unfathomable as a whole.
“I don’t think human beings have a frame of reference for the horror that took place there. The level of intolerance, the hate, is stunning and shocking to me,” she said.
In total, the Nazis, along with their volunteers, murdered six million Jews. The number itself is beyond comprehension. In 1998 an eighth grade class in a small Tennessee town, Whitehall, collected six million paper clips over the course of the school year in an effort to understand the Holocaust better.
The project remains permanently installed at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial in Tennessee. And yet, the contemplation of the mere number alone still cannot broach comprehension of the infinite suffering of the families that were ripped apart, the trauma that lingers to this day in Holocaust survivors and their descendants, the torture that was experienced under Dr. Joseph Mengele, and the terror the poor Jewish souls experienced in the months and minutes leading up to their capture and murder.
Poland, where the Ambassador now lives, was the center of concentration camps such as Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Approximately 3,000,000 Jews from Poland alone were killed by the Nazis, with help from the gentile population.
Poland has tried to distance themselves from their role in the Holocaust. At an event three years ago at the World Values Network, the Polish Consul General to New York, Maciej Golubiewski, spoke about what has become known as the “Holocaust Law.” As part of the law, the Polish government criminalized phrases such as “Polish death camps.” The law was later rescinded.
“For many decades we’ve seen a push of responsibility away from the Germans as the perpetrators to us, to Poles,” the Consul General said, in an attempt to distance Poland’s culpability.
Rabbi Boteach pushed back by bringing up the massacre of approximately 300 Jedwabne Jews, who were murdered by Poles during World War II. “The Germans almost certainly incited them to do it but they found willing people, Poles, who were prepared to kill the Jews,” he said.
No law can change the fact that individual Poles did collaborate with the Nazis, Golubiewski had responded. “The sad fact is that some people, regardless of their origin, religion or worldview revealed their darkest side in that time,” he said.
What can never be fathomed is what it’s like to live in a world where depravity is written in the law. Discrimination and genocide, the confiscation of property, as part of economic policy. Surely, the National Socialists had to get their wealth from somewhere. And Germany, being a country with historic hostility to Jews, the birthplace of Nietzschean ideas that might is right, and the godless world of Schopenhauer who believed in the “meaninglessness of existence,” surely paved the way to genocide. Why not take money from the defenseless minority population whose existence after all has no meaning or purpose? Why not then take their very lives? While reaching this conclusion is perfectly immoral and depraved, it is also perfectly logical.
And that is the uncanny thing about logic. Without any boundaries it can lead one to the worst of places, it can bring about the worst ideas and actions.
Richard Dawkins, a biologist and New York Times best-selling writer and author of The God Delusion, recently wrote on Twitter that eugenics, the weeding out of so-called inferior breeds of people, was possible. He made sure to add that he would never suggest putting it into practice.
By authoring this Tweet, Dawkins’ idea inherently carries the assumption that there are desirable traits in humans and undesirable ones that determine outcomes. This is the necessary step to believing Eugenics would “work.”
Perhaps then, Dawkins would believe Hitler’s operation to kill individuals whom he deemed mentally or physically disabled was an example of eugenics running smoothly?
Hitler said in Mein Kampf that the State, “must declare unfit for propagation all who are in any way visibly sick or who have an inherited disease and can therefore pass it on, and put this into actual practice… Those who are physically and mentally unhealthy and unworthy must not perpetuate their suffering in the body of their children.”
But in fact Eugenics does not and cannot ever work, not in theory and not in practice. This is because the human spirit can triumph above all limitations and circumstances. Moreover, a scoundrel may have an IQ of 140, and someone with a perfect IQ can also be neglectful of his intellectual capacities, and accomplish nothing. It all boils down to one thing: will, and specifically, what one wills to create. Ultimately, Dawkins’ lack of moral boundaries allows his scientific mind to overlook this most important variable that determines the outcome of the human experience. Moreover, it is his deviant moral compass that allows him to carelessly entertain the idea of experimenting on the genetics of the human species since, as he says, “it works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses.”
As Steve Silberman writes in NeuroTribes, in this day and age we have an understanding that neurodiversity makes our world better. Neurodiversity is “the notion that conditions like austism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive stengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than a list of deficits and dysfunctions.”
In sum, each and every human being, no matter their circumstances, has infinite value, worth, and potential.
For example, Sami Steigman, a Holocaust survivor, still lives with the effects of the medical experiments he endured during World War II. Later, he struggled with mental health, he was homeless for a time and his life was headed to a certain abyss. But by the power of his will he fought through those tough times. Now, he speaks to youth to encourage them and inspire them to rise above, and stand up for the right thing.
“Don’t be a bystander,” he said.
The Ambassador to Poland echoed this sentiment. She said, “I will stand up and scream out that there is no place for this kind of hate,” the Ambassador to Poland said about antisemitism. “I’ve always been one to stand up for injustice, I’m a fighter. I believe that freedom isn’t free and we have to fight for it every day. And I’m not tolerant at all of injustice.”
The Dawkins example brings us into another lesson from Germany: we should not to attach much to the titles people bear under their names, rather we should look much more deeply into their actions. It was a man with medical training who sadistically tortured twins and children in medical experiments. It was an aspiring artist, author, and war hero who lead Germany to follow their worst instincts (or perhaps, lead them to sink to their most base instincts). It was a President who gassed children in Syria. It was Ambassador Samantha Powers, a lifelong fighter for human rights, who remained in her position while the gassing occurred in Syria, and the Obama Administration stood by and allowed it to happen. (Previously, Powers admired those who vacated their prestigious positions in protest when ‘doing the right thing’ had fallen by the wayside of the administrations they worked for.)
We see this in literature, too. It was Senator Cassius Dio in Shakespeare’s famous play who conspired to stab Julius Caesar in the house of law and order itself. The motif of the play is doublespeak –– the visible action, and the hidden motivation. From this it can be learned that we must carefully investigate words being said.
Today, we see that people hide behind the word patriotism while denouncing America, and further arguing we should abandon our interests abroad. Maybe “No more war” sounds great as a rallying cry, but non-interventionalist stances are not moral to put into policy when human rights violations, such as the Holocaust or chemical gassings, are carried out abroad.
It is by helping those who are struggling in our Nation and abroad that we fight against the ‘might is right’ idea which birthed a Holocaust. It is by remembering history’s mistakes, by contemplating the horrors of the Holocaust, by reading the evil texts that causes our souls to stir in agony, that feeds our will to fight. As the Consul General said, the world was a dark place during that time. The worst of human nature emerged.
And the final lesson: when we hear the sound of a bad idea we must fight it with everything we have.
I recently took to reading Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. (Objectively, Hitler was a terrible writer.) I read it to remember that the ideas were around before the terrible actions. The ideas were widely read, and were dismissed as impossible to implement and unlikely to bear its rotten fruit. I read it to remember that bad ideas do have their effects. And if I am to be affected by hate as a Jew, as my grandfather had been in Auschwitz, at the very least I can say I tried to fight it.
Ultimately, it is the power of will to bring about more good into the world, to leave this Earth in better condition than we find it, that makes this life vibrant with meaning and purpose.
The question we must ask ourselves every day is which side are we on at this historical moment in time?