May 8th, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the surrender of German forces and the liberation of the concentration camps used in WWII to systematically murder and persecute millions of people.
The upcoming day has caused me to reflect and think about the Holocaust and the estimated 11 million people who lost their lives. I’ve been thinking about the people who survived and how most of them have passed away, taking their stories and memories with them.
And I’ve been thinking about the moment that the Holocaust shifted from being a subject I learned about in school; a chapter in a history textbook accompanied by an appropriate-for-elementary-school photo of some sad scared kids behind a fence to something that really happened.
That moment came one summer afternoon at my grandparents’ house. Their home was like a museum – packed full of all of the things that make up a life. My grandpa was something of a pack rat, never getting rid of anything. When an aunt had gone back to visit in her 20’s she cleaned out her things and dropped them off at a local second hand store. After she left my grandpa went down to the store and convinced them that there had been a mistake. He brought everything home and put it all back where it had been. My grandparents raised 7 children in this place and the bedrooms and main rooms of the house looked the same as they did 20-30 years prior. Closets and dressers still full of teenagers’ things: perfume bottles, journals, MAD magazines, clothing, high school reports, trophies and 4H ribbons.
One of my favorite things to do at their home was to explore all of these belongings. I felt like an archaeologist – digging though the old things; quietly piecing together the lives of the people who lived and grew up in this old white farmhouse.
I was 12 or 13 and looking through some old military chests that stood at the foot of the bed. I found military blankets, old undershirts, books, old Readers Digests, and an old leather book tied with string – a journal of sorts: full of receipts, notes about the weather, a barely legible cursive script, bills, and these photographs:
It was hard to make out what it was at first. I think I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing. My mind tried to reason it away, surely this couldn’t be a pile of bodies. I felt sick. I knew that millions of Jews and people of other faiths had been killed in concentration camps. But nowhere had I heard about what I was now seeing. But it was undeniable – the sharp protruding rib and hip bones, the faces, the arms and legs.
My grandfather had been an Army medic during WWII. I assume that he was there during the liberation of the concentration camps. He had taken these photos of what he had seen. He must have known that no words could do justice to what he was witnessing – taking a photograph was proof.
These photos and thousands like it are what make the Holocaust real for us. They come together to create a faded part of our collective memory; our history. We hold these images in our minds and hearts as we whisper, “Never Again”.
But do we mean it? Do I really mean it? It reminds me of a quote that I read the other day by Saul Bellow:
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Of course I want to believe that I am the kind of person who would never let a holocaust happen again. I want to believe that I would be different than the German people who lived in towns right outside of the concentration camps, who could smell the burning bodies, but did nothing. These neighbors were brought to the camps by the Allied troops days after the war ended to see what had been done in their name. Many of them said that they did nothing because it was, “none of their business”.
They did nothing – this is horrifying. If we really mean “Never Again” we can’t be like those neighbors, who didn’t stand up for the voiceless because it was none of their business.
There are obvious parallels that can be made in our fight against abortion, the holocaust of our generation.
I think about the photos I found among my grandpa’s things. There is a space in my brain that is permanently occupied by them. Finding the photographs and the impact it has had on my understanding of the Holocaust is part of the reason that I am pro-life. I look at the photographs and I know that I am seeing something that is intrinsically evil and I don’t want to be unintentionally condoning evil like this with silence or indifference.
These photos are also part of the reason why I think it is important that people see what abortion victims look like.
It has to be seen to be believed.
As uncomfortable as seeing aborted babies make us, and as hard as they are to look at, the images change the conversation. The images are proof. The images strip away the carefully chosen rhetoric and reveal the reality hidden behind words like privacy and choice and many others that distract us from what is really happening behind the abortion clinic’s walls.
When we are staring at the images of slaughtered human beings – only two questions should remain: Is it acceptable to treat another human being in this way or is it not? If not, what am I going to do about it?
Side note: I highly recommend the documentary Memory of the Camps. You can watch it in it’s entirety online here. The footage was filmed during the liberation of the concentration camps in the spring of 1945. The intent was to document the conditions at the camps to show the German people what they, by their silence, had condoned. It is not easy to watch, but after seeing the video footage, it makes it difficult to deny the power of images.