Three years ago I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. My grandfather helped liberate a camp in WWII, and I felt I would dishonor his memory if I didn’t go and see what evil he had seen up close. Let alone the 12 million murdered in the course of the war. I walked in numbed horror through the vast complex of primitive bunk rooms that served as a dehumanizing holding tank for the gas chambers and furnaces. I stood at the gates and measured the distance with my eyes, a straight line of train tracks ending on the very threshold of the killing factory, shocked at the breathless efficiency of the whole place. 1.1 million killed, in just three years, in one grim location. In at least three of my graduate courses, the professor specifically brought up Auschwitz for discussion, and three times, my class was surveyed, “Has anyone been there? Tell us about it.” Three times I kept silent, not really able to give words to what it was like, how I felt, what I thought, remember, and so forth. For me it was too intense of an experience to be discussed lightly.
I didn’t go alone but with two other students, both with sharp probing minds, and we couldn’t talk about it then, only weep. The place made you feel weak, like all the life energy was being sucked right out from you, and the ground wavered with each uneasy step, and the weight of all that death and hatred bore in to your very heart, and it felt as if you might not be able to walk out again, only crawl. Breath came in whispers, and the sunlight and breeze was as incongruent as would have been mirth. Numbness made your face feel thick and dull, as from hours of crying, and a buzzing tremble begun somewhere behind the eyes shook the flesh of your cheeks and lips.
In my classes others were able to share. I was impressed by something that I heard each of the three times it has come up, and which, now that I think on it, is oft-repeated in any number of situations: “never again.” I wonder at that. Something aspiring to admiration stirs within me at the apparent resolve, but each time I hear those words, the intended weight falls flat, hanging like a limp balloon. Never again. I can imagine any number of people saying, in response to a plain-English proposal of the Final Solution, “never would I allow this.” There were, no doubt, many who, detecting what was afoot, did say some such thing. Didn’t stop it. Could wide-enough “never again” resolve stop such a thing from happening ? I don’t know. The 20th Century wasn’t called the Century of Genocide for nothing.
I’ve been reading about the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, that’s 50 years later, after the world was supposed to have learned it’s lesson, right? Nearly a million dead there, too, in a country no bigger than Maryland. One Rwandan Tutsi, Immaculée Ilibagiza, passed through that darkness, losing her parents, two brothers, countless other friends and relatives, to a massacre at the hands of their neighbors. And she writes, and speaks (if you’re ever fortunate to have her in your area, attend!), of forgiveness, of love. I know I’m not that forgiving, that courageous. Humbling to be in the presence of such a generous heart.
Numbers, especially big numbers, often fail to make an impression on us. There are diverse opinions why: we see too many big numbers every day, we hear too much bad news so we just tune it out, numbers too big for the average human imagination aren’t felt as something real, etc. I don’t know much about that either. Seems to me that what would overcome the disconnect would be to simply reflect on it honestly, to let the weight of such a thing sink in. I’d say we’re more guilty of not thinking about such things than any other explanation offered for the phenomenon. If we really thought about it, we’d have to face the truth of it, and the truth in this case hurts. It shames us. We are right to be shamed by it. Not just because we do not act to prevent wide-scale evil, but because that evil derives from the human heart. From our hearts, too.
Today is an anniversary of sorts, or a mockery of an anniversary. 38 years ago our Government sanctioned the prenatal killing of unwanted or otherwise defective children, and the death toll is numbing. Over 50,000,000 of our brothers and sisters put to death at the very beginning of their lives. That’s one sixth of the current population of the United States. When I hear “never again,” I want to believe it, that we are capable of fulfilling such resolve, but am compelled to ask: do you really mean it? 50 Million. What a staggering figure. 50 million lives. They deserve honest reflection, at the very least, from this world that isn’t good enough to love them.