We spell the Holocaust with a capital “H” because it represents the single most vast and devastating example of genocide in history. It was not “a’ holocaust, but “THE” Holocaust. At the behest of the German government, more than 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated. That’s not to mention the murder of at least four million additional undesirables (gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Russian prisoners, criminals, etc.) But for the moment, let’s just consider the plight of European Jews. They were not hung or shot to death. They were not given an injection to speed their way into a painless death. They were exterminated, like annoying insects. They were gassed to death, because that was the most efficient way to dispose of six million men, women and children – who happened to be Jewish.
Because of the way they praised God; six million innocent people were murdered. Women, the elderly, the sick, the frail and children were often the first into the gas chambers. Men and hardy women were kept barely alive for their value as forced labor. Those able to work were employed as slaves for the benefit of the military and German industrialists. Some of those German companies exist today, albeit with different names. Some still have the same name. When there was no more work, they too were murdered.
My mother experienced brutal anti-Semitism as a child in Russia. I heard many stories about the brutal Cossacks, who persecuted Jews in the towns and villages of the Ukraine. My mother and her sisters barely survived, and then flourished in America. However, most of her remaining family perished in the Holocaust. So, genocide is close to my heart. I hold it for eternity, as a cumbersome stone attached to my soul. It is a burden of remarkable proportions. My ancestors cry out for justice. They want you to know what happened to them and their children. But, I cannot tell this story without revealing the Holocaust in every possible way. It is a terrible and beautiful story, filled with heroes and villains. I called it, “Jacob's Courage.”
I wrote the novel precisely because I had to tell a story that no one wanted to hear. Why would anyone want to think about the Holocaust, particularly when they can listen to their iPod or tune out the poignant world with movies, laptops and television? Yet, the death of six million innocent people MUST be told. If not, there would be nothing to prevent more genocide, and then more after that! Everyone must hear this tragedy. Otherwise, our progeny might embrace the worst of human nature.
This does not demean the importance of other Holocausts. Those innocent people who were murdered in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur were just as blameless. When will we lose apprehension over those who are dissimilar? When will we learn to value the differences among us, rather than fear them? When will we stop ostracizing people because of their religion, race or ethnic heritage? After all, this is the 21st century! We’re better than that. We must be better than that.
I appreciate books that offer a frank, emotional examination of morality. Humans are not good or bad, but good and bad. We surround ourselves with romance and comedy, playing to the healthier parts of our emotional identity. Yet, repugnance, despair and obscurity exist within human nature. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine the dark side of our psyche.
My novel explores how humans behaved during the most brutal and horrendous genocide in history. If any benefit can come from the Holocaust it is that we can examine the furthermost extent of human depravity. We can measure its immorality, degeneracy and wickedness. Yet, humans are complex beings. There is a great deal more to our nature than the ubiquitous battleground of virtue versus malevolence. We are not one or the other, but a combination of both. We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring, kind and iniquitous; we love and we despise.
Deep within the fear and panic of the Holocaust were vastly critical decisions about ethical behavior and our concept of morality. Unlike animals, humans are governed by principles, ethical beliefs and veracity. We are not clouded by delusions of integrity, but governed by them. In "Jacob's Courage," my characters explore the human response to terror, as well as the alluring beauty of passionate young love and the driving power of religious devotion. Our lives are complex - even within the garish trap of the Holocaust. Not all Jews were innocent victims. Not all Germans were rabid anti-Semtites, bent upon the destruction of the Jewish "race."
In reality, the world is seldom seen in black and white, or shades of gray - especially during the Holocaust. In the midst of terrible anguish, beauty existed. Within beauty, despair can exist. And, while many Jews in the abyss of the Holocaust worshipped God, some condemned God. While it might be easy to claim that God works in mysterious ways, how is one to focus such conviction when the veneer of all that is good in life has been stripped away? How does one continue to love a God who allows the murder of every loved one, who allows us to be starved, beaten, tortured, denigrated, disfigured and emotionally destroyed? Could this be the ultimate test of faith?
Holocaust survivors lost everything, but perhaps somehow gained something as well. Certainly an honest examination of the Holocaust must reveal torturous brutality and death. Most Holocaust survivors lost all of their loved ones. The facade of life’s beauty had been stripped away, revealing an incomprehensible abyss of revulsion. Yet here, in the bowels of horror, the Jews of the Holocaust hit a wall and continued to run. Despite the onslaught of evil, in the face of certain death, these Jews fabricated a make-believe world for their children. Deep within the horrid concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Jews of Europe continued to practice their religion, to teach their children and to love one another. Here, among the gas chambers and crematoria, one can feel hope for the survival of the human spirit. These singular individuals rise like a fabulous phoenix, from the ashes of annihilation.
Those poor souls trapped within the terror of the Holocaust were faced with the most perfidious forces. Deceit, brutality, cruelty, sickness, starvation and the death of loved-ones were the daily companions of Holocaust victims. Yet, in the midst of utter despair, there was life, love, passion, desire, religious fervor and the excitement known only to children. Even in such hopeless desolation, there was love of God, infatuation, romance, passion and longing for all of the things that humans crave. Jews fabricated their ethnicity within the drumbeat of the slow, steady march to the gas chambers. They refused to allow the fabric of Jewish society be torn by relocation and the threat of demise. They created schools, orchestras, athletic events, synagogue and prayer, weddings and funerals, dances and theatre, study groups and debates; to every hell-hole the Jews were sent; they took their lifestyle with them. Rather than give in to the Nazis, Jews trapped within ghettos and concentration camps courageously re-created their culture. Some of the most ardent examples of constructive human nature can be found in these terrifying Holocaust moments.
Hidden from the SS, concentration camp Jews observed all of the covenants and rituals of Judaism, including prayer services on the Sabbath and during the major holidays, marriage ceremonies, burials and circumcisions. Along the dark, terrifying, relentless path to the gas chambers of Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews lived, loved, learned and died, behaving as though their lives would continue unabated. In their darkest moments, the Jews of Nazi concentration camps fabricated a “normal” life for their progeny. Despite their impending mortality, they created an ordinary world on the inside to protect children from the raging genocide on the outside. Such was the nature of their love, faith and devotion. Indeed, this worship transcended parental affection. Into the gas chambers and crematoria, the Jews of the Holocaust emptied their faith and continued to worship the God of their ancestors.
The human spirit strives for autonomy and freedom. Yet, to understand human nature, one must descend into the depths of depravity and terror. We cannot appreciate humanity without comprehending its wicked flaws. Deep within the darkest recesses of brutal genocide, we discover a faint flicker of light representing love, passion, desire, hope, worship and reverence. Here is the essence of humanity – a flicker of light representing morality, faith, love and righteousness, in the midst of the dark whirlwind of malevolence.
This is why we must always tell the stories of the Holocaust. Such stories represent the very worst of human vilification and the very best of our compassion. Holocaust stories teach us how to recognize the worst examples of humanity, but also how to be a good person. The terror of genocide is not necessarily an inevitable human outcome. We must learn from the mistakes of our past, rather than repeat them. As long as we teach our children about the Holocaust, there is hope that it will never happen again.
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, “Jacob's Courage” (2007, Mazo Publishers)