The events of the Holocaust clearly exposes dehumanisation on both sides in its purest sense, that of the Nazis and of the Jews. Whether it is subconscious or not, today we as humans dehumanise the Nazis as if they weren’t themselves part of the same human race. We live in an era where we do not have the capacity to comprehend the events of the Holocaust. Questions that spring to mind often come in the form of doubting humankind’s ability. We question the capability of humankind, constantly trying to find answers as to how one human could do this to another human and we conclude that it must be unfathomable. We try our hardest to dehumanise the Nazis, calling them ‘animals’ and ‘monsters’ because surely equating them to our human race is incomprehensible…isn’t it? We are not yet prepared to answer these questions, so we simply don’t. We tell ourselves that this could never happen again by disallowing ourselves to fully believe that the atrocities that went on here at Auschwitz were carried out by humans. Humans just like me and you. This begs a deeper, more concerning question: Do we create these fictional, subhuman characters who we label the Nazis as an attempt to avoid putting the spotlight on us? Are we scared of asking ourselves the question; are all humans intrinsically evil? How do we differ from the Nazis? In the words of the famous Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, ‘The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders’.
We must also dispel of the dehumanisation the Nazis exerted over the Jews. The Jews were stripped of their clothing, belongings and identities. They were tortured, beaten, starved and killed in their masses. They were dehumanised. Yet, whilst we must always remember the terrible atrocities that the Jews suffered, we must also make sure to remember that they were still in fact very much human. Each one of the six million Jews that perished in the Holocaust had a family, friends and a life, just like you and me. We must not feed into the Nazis attempt to dehumanise the Jews, as we again just fall into the trap of being unable to see them as part of our human race. It’s easy for us to dehumanise the Nazis to reassure ourselves that no member of humankind could ever perpetrate such evil. And it’s just as easy to dehumanise the Jews to reassure ourselves that no such thing could ever happen to us. Yet, we cannot let what happened in the past happen again. We get so caught up in this cycle of dehumanisation and what it means to be dehumanised that we start to lose sense of what it actually means be ‘humanised’.
This year the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘How can life go on?’ The connotations of this question imply that we should simply be remembering, but also moving on from the past, and moving forward with the future. However, the question cannot merely be ‘how can life go on?’ In my eyes it is not just about life going on, the pivotal questions we should be asking ourselves are: ‘How can life transform for the better?’, ‘How can life go above and beyond?’, ‘How can life resist and rebel?’. Of course it is important to move on, but we cannot simply ‘move on’ or ‘go on’ with life without also changing and bettering life. We cannot solely educate about the tragedies of our past in order for the past not to be relived, we must ALSO educate towards what a better future looks like and establish meaningful and tangible ways to get there.
This is where shivyon erech ha’adam (the equality of human worth) comes in. Shivyon erech ha’adam is a concept that we all find difficult to grapple with. We have seen from Nazi Germany how easy it was for society to reach an ultimate low through several processes and stages. However, when we try and imagine the complete opposite, a utopian society, we struggle to comprehend exactly how we can create such a world. If it is so easy for humankind to regress and let the world slip into its darkest slum, then why is it so hard to work the opposite way and create the steps to move forwards and create our perfect world? After visiting the concentration camps in Poland whilst on Shnat and learning about how low humanity and the gradations of evil can reach and have reached in the past, I understood that it has to be up to us as human beings, as members of Habonim Dror, to continue the legacy of those 6 million Jews. We must visualise a society founded on shivyon erech ha’adam and make the steps to actualise it, through education, counter-culture rebellion and solidarity. We must educate about taking responsibility, not just for yourself, but for society and others. We must all feel responsible for each other, but the only way this is possible is through ‘dugma ishit’ – leading by example. Human beings are capable of extraordinary and wonderful things. Let us be the best that humankind can be.
By Lauren Lee