Dec. 22, 2020
By ELLIE DEEGAN
My Zaida’s best friend Andy was born in Hungary. He grew up very comfortably but his idyllic childhood did not last long. In March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary, and he came to know the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand.
Recently, I interviewed Andy. He told me that he, his mom, and his sister survived the Holocaust by chance because an axle on their railcar broke, and they were marched to another camp instead of to Auschwitz. He was quite ill, and his mother carried him on her back for many kilometers. Otherwise, he would have been shot.
For a 15-year-old like me, growing up in multicultural Toronto, something like the Holocaust is very difficult to grasp. The human mind cannot imagine what six million dead looks like. And this was not that long ago. Questions abound: How could Adolf Hitler, whose antisemitism was open, as he wrote about it in Mein Kampf in 1925, and his Nazi Party form a government? How could the Holocaust have been masterminded in one of the most cultured and sophisticated countries in the world?
Propaganda was used to make Jews less than human. As a young child in Germany, if this is what you were taught, not only by your family but by your government, how would you know any better?
However, adults in Germany did know better. One of the important reasons to study history is to ensure that terrible events do not repeat themselves. What I take from this is that we must be careful about how lies and propaganda can influence us. That is why a strong, free and fiercely independent press is so important to our democracy.
Crimes against the Jewish people in Germany started small and gradually but by the late 1930s, escalated dramatically even before the Second World War. Public book burnings began in 1933, and Kristallnacht, the night of widespread pogroms, was in 1938. Nazi mobs burned synagogues and beat Jews publicly. Some Germans were appalled by these events – but not enough were.
One of the most significant issues in Nazi Germany was the compliance of the general population. When Jews were forced into ghettos, their neighbours were not forced to move into their homes. Neither were they forced to steal their possessions. It was their choice. Doing so and knowing that your neighbours might be abused or murdered by gas, gun, or at the hand of another human being is absolutely twisted. There is no question that complacency leads to complicity.
One hundred years before the Holocaust, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” If complacency and complicity occurred in a high culture like Germany’s, it can happen anywhere. This is why it is important to be true to yourself and true to others.
Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism continues to exist, even thrive. Andy told me, “When my mother returned to Hungary after the war ended to retrieve her silver, her neighbours were not excited to see her. They told her they wished she would have disappeared in the Holocaust, so they could keep her things.”
As individuals and as a society, we have a responsibility to think about what is happening around us and to not always go with the mob. Being a bystander and being silent in the face of hate and intolerance is one of the most dangerous things for a free society.
Today, we continue to see terrible acts against Jewish, Black, and Indigenous people and many other victims of hate. I am still too young to vote, but I discovered that voting is key to combating hate, which can rise up during tough economic times, like we are experiencing today. Tapping into fear and scapegoating minorities is wrong and dangerous. We always need to think of our own welfare, but we also have to ensure that we look out for the marginalized in our society and protect the rights of minorities.
Standing up for others is the best way to erase hatred and to build a stronger democracy.
Ellie Deegan is a grade 10 student at Greenwood College School in Toronto