Eighty years ago today, Hitler invaded Poland and thus began the second World War. Some 70 to 85 million people died over the next six years, and the world was reminded how sadistic human beings can be when fear, white supremacy and ambivalence work together.
A few weeks ago, my family and I flew across the Atlantic. Our main destination: Katowice, Poland. We have dear friends there and so we got to be tourists and catch up with some people we love.
The city of Katowice is only 23 miles away from the notorious labor and death camp Auschwitz, so Mike, Annie and I took a day to bear witness to that horrifying place.
Going in, I thought I understood what happened there. Like so many, I’ve studied about the war and Holocaust. I have read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and Elie Wiesel’s haunting, “Night.” I’ve seen “Schindler’s List.” But I was not prepared.
How do you prepare your kid or yourself to see a place where more than a million people were systematically executed? To see a room full of shoes piled 10 feet high and deep — or another room of the same size filled with eye glasses? Or human hair? The Nazis took everything and stockpiled it. That image will sit with me forever, and it certainly was not the worst thing I learned that day.
As we progressed through the camp, the range of emotion I experienced was profound. There is one particular detail which regularly wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I won’t explain it here because I just can’t type the words. That humans could be so cruel to one another is shattering.
And predictable. We see the start of similar brutalities and injustice time and time again.
I heard our tour guide talk of Hitler and the Nazis referring to Jews and other non-Aryans as animals, vermin, an infestation, and invaders who were to blame for Germany’s economic insecurity. Echoes of Germany-past and America-present hung in the air like a minor chord signaling the cruelty that ensues when society has the hive mentality of fear and scarcity.
Our guide ended the tour by reminding us that atrocities of all types begin and happen easily when we decide that a certain group of people isn’t fully human.
That’s how U.S. soldiers marched Cherokees on foot to Oklahoma in the dead of winter; that’s how those Nazi soldiers herded unsuspecting Jews into gas chambers day after day; that’s how a Department of Justice lawyer can argue in court with a straight face that refugee children in U.S. custody are not legally entitled to soap, toothbrushes or sleep.
And in recent news, that’s how menstruating migrant girls detained at the border can be left locked in a crowded room while they bleed through their clothes with little or no access to sanitary pads, clean underwear or a shower.
Incidentally, it was also 78 years ago today — Sept. 1, 1941, that Jews living in Germany were required to wear a yellow Star of David. These days, I am starting to believe that even those who remember the past are doomed to repeat it.