Never Again: Keeping a Promise about Human Suffering

White paper boat onto world map with 'Help' sign on it.
White paper boat onto world map with 'Help' sign on it.

Did you cry at the end of Schindler's List? Even after the credits were over, it took me several minutes to get a grip enough to be able to walk out of the theater. I spent months after that movie, trying to read everything I could about the Holocaust so that I could try to understand how it could've happened.

No matter how much I tried to learn about the Holocaust, I still couldn't see how things could get to the point where people were rounded up and murdered. I couldn't see how anyone could sit by and allow so much human suffering. No matter how much I tried to understand it, in my mind, the Holocaust felt like something that could never happen again. It felt like something horrible that happened a long time ago, before color existed, in a cold, grey place where the only logical reason for any of it was that an evil man brainwashed weak and evil people.

"Never Again" was the slogan I used to hear about the Holocaust and I believed it - until now.

When Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, said that he would employ a "deportation force" to round up and kick out 11 million people living illegally in the United States, I was alarmed. I had visions of armed, jackbooted thugs going door-to-door, arresting entire families (children), and dumping them at the Mexican border. There is no way that can be done humanely even if that's what Trump is claiming. As abhorrent as I thought that was, I still wasn't ready to start making comparisons to Hitler even though the idea is eerily similar to Nazi Germany's mass deportation of Polish Jews in 1938.

This week though, Trump, and a few others, have used the attack on Paris to make the leap from alarming and far-fetched ideas to downright dangerous ones. The comments that have been made about Syrian refugees and Muslims are echoing the sentiments leading up to the Holocaust in such a way that it's becoming easier to understand how an atmosphere might evolve that could lead decent people to forget their humanity.

Trump is now saying that if he were to become president that he would implement a plan to force Muslims in the U.S. to register in a database. How is he going to do that? What if someone refuses? Do they go to jail? This harkens back to when Jews in the Netherlands were forced to register in 1941.

He also told Sean Hannity that we may need to close mosques. How? How does he think can he legally do that in the United States? He can't. His rhetoric may very well bring on another Kristallnacht and angry mobs will do it for him just like they did to synagogues in November of 1938.

It's not just Trump either. Ben Carson comparing Syrian refugees to rabid dogs is just as dehumanizing as the rat imagery that was used in the propaganda war against Jews. Glen Casada, a Tennessee lawmaker, suggested rounding up any Syrians who had already settled in the state. There's that term again - rounding up.

As I write this, there is a hostage situation in Mali, Brussels is on high alert, and we are only a week into mourning the victims of the Paris attacks. The world feels dangerous and unpredictable right now because of terrorism, especially because of ISIS. I get the fear and I get the urge to close ranks and keep "others" on the outside, especially others who look like the people who want to blow us up. And it's not irrational to be afraid of terrorists sneaking in as refugees.

But is it really making us safer to turn our backs on desperate human beings? It seems like it would be a lot easier to for ISIS to recruit from a group of people left to starve than it would be from a group who was welcomed and treated with kindness. Isn't becoming what Islamist extremists say we are really just letting them win? Isn't this exactly what ISIS wants? If this is a clash of civilizations, we won't win by giving up on American ideals and freedoms. We'll win by fighting for them, even if that means fighting for the rights, and the lives, of people who we perceive as "others."

Trump isn't Hitler and we're not Nazi Germany but there is a dangerous uptick in the kind of rhetoric that echoes back to that time. I'm starting to understand that we're not so different from the people of Nazi Germany. We're scared and angry and it's very easy for politicians capitalize on that. But we are witnessing the dehumanization and humiliation of another group of people based on their religion. And we are at a turning point in history where decades from now, people will look back and judge us and wonder how we could have allowed so much suffering.

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." -- Elie Wiesel

Who do you imagine you would have been if you'd lived in Germany in the years leading up to World War II? We learned about those years and assumed we would have been different. We assured ourselves that we never would have stood by and allowed innocent people to die. We told ourselves we wouldn't be silent while human beings endured suffering and humiliation. And when we watched Schindler's List, we sobbed and promised - Never Again.