A number of years ago, maybe in the 1980s, I paid a visit to a friend in New York state who taught English at a local college. I was with her the day the class assignment included a story about the Holocaust.
Judging from the students’ reactions, Nazi Germany was ancient history and of no concern to them. On the other hand, I remembered World War II all too well.
I was 13 when Buchenwald, Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps were liberated. I remember the photos in Life magazine of skeletal men packed like cordwood in their prison bunks. I remember first-person accounts about the crematoriums where an unknown number of Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables" went to their death.
Each morning, when I arise I recite the 23rd Psalm: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ..." God forgive me. I lie. I do fear evil.
Buchenwald and Auschwitz were evil. Nazi nationalism was evil. Genocide is evil, but how did it happen? The German people were no different than any other people; a mixture of good and bad, but the bad wasn’t necessarily evil. Selfish and self-centered perhaps, limited in education and understanding just like the rest of us, but not naturally evil.
So how does it happen that otherwise good people commit evil? First, they don’t recognize it. The Nazi party told them the Jews and other "misfits" were the source of their problems. The Jews were taking their jobs and undermining their culture. Gypsies were not "real Germans," and therefore the nation would be stronger and better if they got rid of these people.
Second, evil is a deadly combination of not knowing and not wanting to know — ignorance and denial — and this takes me back to that English class in New York. Those young people didn’t believe that Holocaust had anything to teach them. What’s more, they thought it couldn’t happen here, at least not to them.
In one of his books, the popular psychologist, author and spiritual guru Scott Peck described evil as "laziness." I pondered over that a long time. Now I think he meant not making the effort to see beyond our own well being. The good people of Germany said they didn’t know. They did know. They simply chose denial.
I bring this up now because I believe it can happen here, probably has happened here, and because my 13-year-old granddaughter is reading "Night," Elie Wiesel’s painful account of his experience in the Nazi death camps.
In 1944, the Hungarian authorities allowed the Nazis to deport Jews from the town of Sighet to a concentration camp, Auschwitz Birkenau. There, Wiesel was separated from his mother and youngest sister. He never saw them again. He and his father stayed together, but his father died of starvation and dysentery before the camp was liberated.
When my granddaughter mentioned the book, I recognized the author but not the book itself. When she left it at home last week, I read it. As yet I haven’t yet had the opportunity to discuss it with her.
What does a 13-year-old think about the depravity and evil it describes? Is it even fit reading for one hardly more than a child?
Wiesel was only little older when he entered Auschwitz, just 15. He survived the Holocaust and became a world-renowned author. In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Among his many quotes, he said, "Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil."
Indifference, laziness, denial — things we live with every day. We all walk through the "Valley of the Shadow of Death." Perhaps that is why I write. Wiesel also said, "Not to transmit an experience is to betray it."
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears every other Tuesday and on gainesvilletimes.com.