A few days ago, the Jewish world observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This marks the greatest calamity in Jewish history, the cold-blooded, methodical destruction of six million innocent Jewish souls – men, women and children.
The Holocaust was also a calamity for mankind. We tend to direct our anger toward the Nazi killing apparatus, which was designed and deployed by the most demented “humans” who ever existed.
Although the Nazis, led by their Führer, were the primary criminals, the entire German populace was culpable, because Hitler did not operate in a vacuum. They knew, because Herr Hitler was clear about his genocidal intentions. He openly threatened that a new war would bring about the obliteration of the Jewish race.
Between 1933 and 1939, when he invaded Poland, Hitler enacted laws to afflict and marginalize the Jews. Although Kristallnacht left no doubt about his extreme plans and his determination to implement them, the Germans’ ardor for their beloved leader was not dampened because they shared his anti-Semitic proclivities.
Germany itself, not just its Nazis, bears the guilt and shame for what transpired. One of Rashi’s teachings is relevant here. The verse states that the plague of the bechor (first-born male) proceeded “from the bechor of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the bechor of the captive who was in the dungeon. …”
Why should captive soldiers from a foreign land, who had nothing to do with the Jews’ enslavement, be punished? Rashi comments that it is because they saw, and rejoiced at, the suffering of the Jews.
This also applies to the “ordinary” Germans who had previously had Jewish friends and neighbors. When the victims were carted off, they looked on with glee and eagerness to seize any valuables left behind. Germany is a guilty nation. The entire nation must commemorate the Shoah with contrition and introspection.
What about the rest of “civilized” mankind and the Allied nations that defeated the Third Reich? Their hands are not clean. The extermination of Jews was known early on. Two major Allies, the U.S. and Great Britain, displayed hearts of stone to the plight of the doomed. Where were their humanitarian impulses?
England and the U.S. had an abominable record of rescue. The German ship “St. Louis” carried hundreds of Jews who were allowed to leave the country. But no one wanted them. As the ship languished off the Florida coast, efforts to give them a temporary haven failed.
The ship was forced to leave, but no one would have them. Finally, the passengers were returned to European countries that were subsequently overrun by the Nazis. Many of those who had come so close to freedom were swallowed up in the Holocaust.
Can America claim innocence? Can anyone say with any credibility, “Our hands did not shed this blood?”
No, we are guilty. Yom Hashoah is a day that all mankind must observe. For the true nature of man was tested during the Holocaust. It is not just Hitler and the German people who are guilty.
The entire civilized world looked on and saw no reason to intervene. The Allies were already engaged in relentless warfare against Hitler, constantly firebombing German cities. The warplanes and bombs were available. But none were earmarked to save the innocent, to bomb the railway lines carrying the victims to the extermination camps.
On his visit to Yad Vashem, a “teary eyed” President George W. Bush stopped in front of an aerial photograph of Auschwitz and said the U.S. “should have sent bombers to prevent the extermination of Jews there.”
At the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, Eli Wiesel asked, “Why weren’t the railway lines leading to Birkenau bombed by Allied bombers? As long as I live, I will not understand that.” At that same event, then-President Bill Clinton said the West has to “live forever with this knowledge” that far too little was done and that “rail lines to the camps, within miles of militarily significant targets, were left undisturbed.”
All of mankind was on trial during the Shoah – and failed the test, operating by the credo that “I am not my brother’s keeper.”
All we can do is remember and remind the world of its horrific crime. For all that was done, and for all that was left undone, we must all do teshuvah (repent).
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix.