Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Personal Reflections on the Holocaust

I try to read something on the Holocaust each year during Lent. Two books I read in past years were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” by Daniel Jonah Goldenhagen and “Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans.” This year I re-read a long magazine article by Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland about his two-day visit in 2004 to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Nuland, professor of clinical surgery at Yale School of Medicine, found the Museum “a place to learn, to look within oneself, and to ponder the nature of our shared humanity.” In addition, because he was there during an extraordinary exhibition on ”Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race,” he reflected much about his personal responsibilities as a doctor, and especially about how he might have acted had he been practicing in Germany during the Nazi years:

“It had always seemed obvious to me, and to the several colleagues with whom I discussed it over the years, that none of us would ever have fallen prey to such delusions as the justification of euthanasia and genocide.”

After “Deadly Medicine’ he was no longer so sure. He now feared he may have been swept along by each of the eugenics movement’s “small steps” that, at least in the early stages, did not appear dangerous, and were supported by “highly regarded scientists.”

Nuland’s self-examination shook him deeply. In The New Republic of September 13/20, 2004, he wrote: “To my startled dismay, I found myself understanding why much of the German medical establishment acted as it did. I realized that, given the circumstances, I might have done the same.”

The “Deadly Medicine” exhibit, and Nuland’s eight-page review, traced how the international eugenics movement – its dedication to improving the “purity of the human race by better breeding” – led to Hitler’s program of “ridding Germany and eventually Europe of the pestilential disease of Judaism.” Under medical science’s stamp of approval, “who but a few visionaries would see any danger in the promotion of purity?”

Nuland’s own profession cooperated widely and willingly with the Holocaust: “No association or guild was more complicit in the rise of Nazism and the desecrations committed by its leaders and followers than the profession of medicine, in the form both of its organizations and its members.”

How could this happen to members of such a noble profession? Among other reasons: “their failure to recognize a basic fact about the scientific enterprise...Neither medicine nor science itself derives its ‘truths’ in the thoroughly detached atmosphere in which its practitioners would like to believe they work…There is no such thing as a thoroughly detached scientific undertaking.”

Reflecting on the Holocaust is for me, too, a moving experience. If my father, an ethnic German, had not migrated to the United States, I might have lived through the days of Nazi rule.

  • Would I have been among the multitudes of Germans, young and old, who (as you can see in TV documentaries) marched in Nazi parades and saluted in Nazi rallies? No, I tell myself.
  • Would I have played a role in the extermination of Jews? No. No, I would not betrayed my Jewish neighbors or taken any action against them.
  • But would I have raised my voice in protest? Would I have done anything, anything at all, to stop the carnage? On that I am...not sure.
That thought disturbs me. It stems from an honest self-appraisal of the kind that Lent calls for. And it leads to a prayerful reaffirmation to dedicating myself to the cause of human rights for all.

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