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Silence of the World

January 28, 2013 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

One of Hitler's greatest allies in the holocaust was the indifference of the world.

Hitler had an all-powerful ally without whom he could have never succeeded. His ally was the world that chose to remain silent as Germany kept testing the limits of the universal tolerance for its evil actions.

The Holocaust didn't begin with crematoria. Hitler moved slowly, cautiously escalating his anti-Jewish policies. In 1935, he passed the Nuremberg Laws, depriving all Jews of German citizenship. Jews were then barred from the professions, their stores were boycotted, they were singled out for special taxes, and they were prohibited from "intermarrying" with Germans.

But on November 9, 1938, Hitler chanced a much more devastating step to test the waters of the world's reaction. "Kristallnact," the "Night of the Broken Glass," was a government-sponsored pogrom to attack the windows of almost every German synagogue, and to viciously beat any Jew who tried to protect the sanctuaries.

With their genius for sadism, the Nazis then imposed a fine of one billion Deutsche mark against the Jews to pay for the damages the Germans had inflicted.

But this was not enough to arouse the anger of the world. And so the progression that the great Protestant theologian Martin Niemoller described so powerfully was set into inexorable motion. Neimoller wrote:

"When the Nazis went after the Jews, I was not a Jew, so I did not react. When they persecuted the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, so I did not move. When they went after the workers, I was not a worker, so I did not stand up. When they went after the Protestant clergy, I moved, I reacted, I stood up, but by then it was too late. By that time there was no one to speak up for anyone."

While Six Million Died

The opposite of love, it's been pointed out, is not hate. It is indifference. And if one can charitably say that the whole world didn't hate the Jews at the time of the Holocaust, most of the nations were, at the very least, strongly and strangely indifferent.

Hitler gloated that while some spoke disapprovingly of his Jewish policies, no one was willing to take in the Jews that were fleeing Germany. The British imposed the White Paper, curtailing the promises of the Balfour Declaration and preventing emigration of the Jews to Palestine. The United States refused to increase its limited quota for immigrants. When a Canadian official was asked how many Jews his country could accommodate, his answer was, "None is too many."

Although the allies had accurate maps of Auschwitz and their planes were able to find their way to the oil house five miles away from the slaughterhouse, they never bombed the crematoria or gas chambers, which would have seriously hampered the German-programmed mass killings. Arthur Morse's book, While Six Million Died, makes tearful reading as we are forced to acknowledge the complicity of so much of the world in what is normally viewed as the crime of the Nazis.

Voyage of the Damned

"Any port in a storm" as the saying goes… unless the passengers are Jewish refugees.

The fate of the S.S. St. Louis is the most vivid example of the guilt shared by so many. 937 Jews with visas for Cuba set sail from Germany in May 1939. They knew they could not remain in a land that encouraged Kristallnacht.

Cuba refused them entry, so the captain set sail for Florida. When the ship neared its territorial waters, the coast guard fired a warning shot, and the ship had to seek another port where it could land.

The long journey in search of a haven eventually brought the S.S. St. Louis back to Germany and to death for most of its passengers.

from "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture" (Alpha Books)

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