During my recent overseas adventure, I visited both Nuremburg, Germany and Budapest, Hungary, among other locations. These two cities, especially in combination, were intensely moving.
My husband’s family immigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s. The area had been ravaged by multiple wars followed by desperate economic strife and geographic displacement of the residents – not to mention changing national borders. However, that history, as difficult as it was, was overshadowed a few years later by the horrible history of the Nazi era. It’s a good thing his family left when they did, because they would likely have not escaped later. Many did not.
He probably would not have been on this earth today.
It’s sad that a city lives in infamy for its worst moments. Thankfully, today, rather than attempt to whitewash the past, the Nuremburg citizens realize that they can use the past as a source of education about what they refer to as “our dark time in history.”
Wikipedia contains a short description about Nuremburg history during this timeframe:
Nuremberg held great significance during the Nazi Germany era. Because of the city’s relevance to the Holy Roman Empire and its position in the centre of Germany, the Nazi Party chose the city to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions — the Nuremberg rallies. The rallies were held 1927, 1929 and annually 1933–1938 in Nuremberg. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the Nuremberg rallies became huge Nazi propaganda events, a centre of Nazi ideals. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). At the 1935 rally, Hitler specifically ordered the Reichstag to convene at Nuremberg to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws which revoked German citizenship for all Jews and other non-Aryans. A number of premises were constructed solely for these assemblies, some of which were not finished. Today many examples of Nazi architecture can still be seen in the city.
We all know what happened next.
As a member of the human race, one my biggest fears is that discrimination, racism and misogyny on this level will once again manifest itself.
Visiting Nuremburg, seeing those places for myself was at the same time sobering and spine-chilling. The cavernous locations of Hitler’s rallies, large enough to encompass a full city block and drive multiple busses around inside the arena. The arena below was filled with people and you’re only seeing about one fourth of the size.
The now-silent cheers of Hitler’s legions of Nazi supporters haunt this place, those who would advance his agenda and follow his lead to condemn millions of Jews and other “undesireables” to death – simply because of how they looked or their religion. Fear-incited genocide propagated by a charismatic leader sewing fear and mass hysteria.
Hitler is known for systematically killing Jews, but they weren’t his only targets. Additionally, he singled out LGBTQ individuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Roma gypsies, Poles and other Slavic peoples, Jehova’s Witnesses, blacks, mixed race “mulattos” and members of political opposition groups. According to the Virtual Jewish Library, Hitler killed more than 11 million people in total – 6 million Jews and 5 million others.
Eleven. Million. People.
Think about that for a minute.
New York City’s’s estimated population in 2016 was only 8.5 million. Eleven million is the size of New York City and Chicago, combined. The equivalent populations of both of those cities, today, died at Hitler’s hands.
In 1986, the Hands Across America benefit united 6.5 million people in a human chain from literally sea to sea. If every person stood 4 feet apart, 6.5 million people would have covered the contiguous 48 states. So, 11 million people standing shoulder to shoulder would stretch about the same distance – or standing at 4 feet – across America – twice.
Eleven million is an astounding number. I have to ask myself, how did Hitler, or anyone, manage to convince so many Europeans that the horrific murder of 11 million people was not only alright, but justified, AND convinced them to assist and abet this mass murderer by either willfully participating or turning a blind eye?
And in case you’re feeling particularly self-righteous as an American, our collective hands were not without bloodstain. In 1939, a ship, the MS St. Louis, carrying 937 Jewish refugees sailed from Hamburg first to Cuba, where only 29 individuals were allowed to disembark, and then to Florida and Canada seeking asylum, where the ship was not allowed to dock. The ship’s captain subsequently attempted to find safe haven for his passengers in European ports, having no place left to go, but 254 of those turned away by Cuba, the US and Canada were subsequently killed in the Holocaust after the ship and her 907 remaining passengers (one died in route) were forced to return.
Turning a blind eye to fellow humans is aiding and abetting. Failing to condemn horrific behavior is aiding and abetting.
The poem, “First They Came,” was written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a former Nazi supporter who survived a Nazi prison. His poem addresses the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis‘ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
And then, there are the heroes, like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps. For a tear jerker, watch Nicholas meet those children decades later as adults. Just ordinary people – look at them. Get the Kleenex, because you will not get through this with dry eyes, I guarantee. You’re in good company, because neither could Nicholas.
Speaking about Nicholas, the Dalai Lama said,
“We must carry his spirit generation to generation.”
To forget history, or to ignore it, is to repeat it.
A few days after Nuremberg, we arrived in the lovely city of Budapest, an incredible combination of the old medieval city shown by the spires in the distance combined with a cosmopolitan modern city that was sporting the international diving championships (the blue scaffold) along the Danube while we were visiting.
Having injured my knee at the beginning of the trip, I was skipping out on many of the walking tours, because I simply couldn’t handle that many hours on my feet.
However, as we returned to the ship after a bus tour in the morning, I noticed the shoes.
The tour guide, busy talking about the diving championships, didn’t say anything about the shoes, but I knew immediately what they were when I saw them.
In 1944 and 1945, 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, were killed in Budapest by the Hungarian fascist party by being lined up on the banks of the Danube River, ordered to remove their shoes, then shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were whisked away – like so much human rubbish.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial was created with 60 period-appropriate shoes cast of iron and affixed along the riverbank for 40 meters. If all 3,500 pairs of feet had been represented, shoes side by side, the memorial would have stretched for the length of more than a mile.
I walked alone along the riverbank on a sweltering summer afternoon in the middle of a heat wave named Lucifer for its punishing intensity, the sun searing and miserable. This memorial is not something you should be comfortable seeing. Discomfort, as well as pain, was welcome and appropriate – and nothing compared to what those people, and their families, endured.
Can you imagine the fear, the horror of seeing your family members, your parents, your siblings, your children, murdered – and knowing you were marching to your sure and certain deaths? The only unknown was how much you would suffer, and for how long.
And it wasn’t just Jews, but anyone who had the audacity to speak up for what was right, which was politically very unpopular – unpopular to the point of death. Death, intimidation, torture, murder, subjugation and annihilation was the Nazi way.
As my gaze was fixed on the empty shoes representing this waste of humanity, I was struck by how much potential was washed away, not just with these 3,500, but with the 11 million in total. How many never contributed to the good of humanity, but would have? Did the person destined to save us from cancer die? What is the unknown cost to us all?
After all, we all bleed blood – the great equalizer, along with birth and death.
What did we do to ourselves, not only with the wasted lives and unrealized potential of those who died, but with the horrid gash we inflicted upon our own souls?
I didn’t want to look, yet I couldn’t look away. I could see their bodies falling into the water, gasping for breath, hopefully, mercifully, dead by the time they hit the water. I pray their deaths were at least swift.
None of us can afford to look away. We must, in the name of humanity, prevent this from ever happening again.
I spent the afternoon alone, in contemplative silence, although surrounded by other walkers. I sat behind and among the shoes, reflecting not only upon the deaths of so many innocents, but the challenges we face today in a worldwide atmosphere where rampant hatred and discrimination based on the slight differences of human form and our different religious choices seems to be making a virulent comeback.
I felt shame that we, in a global sense, and as individuals, let this happen. That we failed so many. We must never let it happen again. We must be wiser now.
More the Same Than Different
The DNA of all humans is 99.9% the same, with very few differences. While we depend upon those differences for genetic genealogy, for the most part, we match every other living human.
Remember how many people whose DNA you match that you didn’t expect and don’t know, but you’re somehow related to?
Think about how many of those 11 million people that died you were related to.
Think you’re not?
I have over 30,000 matches among Ancestry’s data base of 5 million – and even if you generously subtract 25% with the assumption they are false positives, that means that I’m related to about 22,000 of 5 million people I don’t know. That means that I would probably have been related to many of the people who died in the Holocaust, maybe between 45,000 and 60,000 of them. That brings it a lot closer to home.
I’m not Jewish, and still, I’m sure that some of my relatives died. Assuredly, my husband’s did.
The Holocaust is no longer simply a lesson in history that happened three quarters of a century ago, it’s a dire warning about what is happening today as well.
Today we have Charlottesville. The re-emergence of the horrific.
Today we hear, on our own soil, horrible racial and anti-Semitic epithets, espousing hatred and bigotry. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter who leads this country or which party is in power, wrong is wrong.
Hatred is hatred.
Seeds of discrimination and hatred sew discrimination and hatred that leads to violence which is the exact scenario that led to Hitler’s massive genocide.
Refusal to condemn and combat hatred and discrimination on an individual level, as well as a national level, simply begets more of the same. We’ve already seen where that leads. Do we have to go there again?
The recorded history of the world, to date, has been punctuated repeatedly by horrific wars (30 Years War, Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI and II with its atomic bomb, to name a few), slavery (African, Native American, Moorish and English, as a beginning) on every continent except Antarctica, genocide (Native American, Jewish, South American, African, as examples) and the murder and/or displacement of millions of people due to their religious differences (Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, aboriginals, perceived witches and the Crusades for starters).
Not one of us lives today whose ancestors weren’t affected by these factors.
Probably every single one of us had ancestors who were enslaved, killed or displaced – one way or another suffering at the hands of other humans within a genealogical timeframe. On this continent – Acadians, Native Americans and Africans come quickly to mind. In the UK, Catholics and the Irish. The list goes on – all at the hands of a ruling class that either lost or never had a moral compass.
Are we condemned to repeat that past?
Not on my watch.
Not if I can do anything about it.
Not as long as there is a breath in my body.
In the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Nelson Mandela:
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.
I hope that our DNA connections show us how much we have in common with others and serve to bring us together as the human race, celebrating our diverse roots and our humanity. Remember, the Momondo DNA Journey where 67 people were tested to celebrate diversity around the world and travel to where their ancestors were from? Take a look, here for one example. It’s an amazing story, really, that challenges pre-conceived notions and biases.
In one participant’s words:
“There would be no such thing as, like, extremism in the world, if people knew their heritage like that.”
We’re all cousins.
Remember The Shoes…
…and pray, pray, that no one ever has to stand in them again.
This time, it could be you.