It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day – A Good Day To Remember “What A Piece Of Work Is Man?”

That damned Shakespeare — he always seemed to nail us humans with all the irony due us. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. 76 years ago today, the Russian army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi’s death camps. 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, died within Auschwitz’s razor-wired fences. Some were openly murdered — shot, gassed, hanged. Others were worked to death. Others succumbed to sickness or disease or just the weariness of hopelessness. This happened because some humans regard other humans as “cockroaches”.

Nobody’s a cockroach, ya see. We’re all humans. Capable of great things. But, alas, also capable of great evil — all while seeming filled with the potential for good. Sometimes, irony burns hotter than the sun. What a piece of work IS man? In “Hair”, Galt McDermott (working with James Rado and Jerome Ragni) even put it to music —

“What a piece of work is man? How noble in reason?”

“How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!”

“In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!”

“The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

“Why it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

Never forget. Never again.

I Grew Up In The Holocaust’s Shadow

I grew up in the 1960’s in a mostly upper middle class Jewish suburb in northwest Baltimore.  Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that the area — and its Junior & Senior High Schools — were known as ‘Kikesville’, get it?

World War II ended 14 years before I was born.  By the time I started attending Hebrew School (beginning when I was 6) , the War was 20 years in the World’s rear view mirror.  Most of the War’s visible impacts were long gone.  But the scars — they were all still fresh for lots of people.  Jews, for instance.

The generation that had been alive during this atrocity now had to inform the next generation that this thing had happened.  They needed to tell us because even though the true horror was over, a new ideal had been born from the ashes falling over places like Auschwitz and Dachau and Buchenwald and Treblinka.  Jews would never ever go like lambs to the slaughter again.  That began with KNOWING that it happened and could always happen again.

It began early — knowing.  Keep in mind — these monsters killed children with not an iota of conscience.  It became important for Jewish children to understand that they could never be completely safe in this world.  You need to have that notion instilled early.  If you don’t learn it early enough, you’ll be surprised or disappointed or crushed when someone you care about or who you thought cared about you turns out to be one of them: A Jew-Hater.

Expect to be hated.  Have a plan — either to calm the situation down or run for the border — already in mind.

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The image that first got inside my head was this one.  Jews being arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto, sometime in April or May 1943.  I saw that kid with his arms up — his terrified eyes screaming ‘What’d we do?  Why us?’  Ironically — though a number of people in this iconic photo have been identified — along with their fate — the boy in the middle — the boy who kind of epitomized how I identified as a Jew — THAT boy’s fate is unknown.

Like a lot of young Jews my age, I identified with that boy.  He was me.

The Warsaw Ghetto — as terrible a place as it was — also was the site of the biggest (not the only) active Jewish Resistance.  From January to April 1943, the Germans were fired on and killed when they entered the Ghetto.  They fired back, of course — in the end, they wiped the Ghetto off the map —

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That’s what’s left of the Warsaw Ghetto — 1945.  400,000 Jews were transported out.  The Germans killed 35,000 Jews while starvation and disease killed 83,000.

The Will to Fight Back was born in that place.

When I see people like THIS in America — I know where it leads.

What’s truly horrifying — I absolutely believed as I was growing up that my parents and my community were nuts for shoving the Holocaust down our throats.  The World my generation was going to re-imagine would never allow such a thing to happen in the future.  There’s a reason we don’t let stupid children run things: they’re stupid.  And they’re children.

It truly hurts sto see swastikas here and know it’s not an anomaly.  It’s who this country is and always has been.

Lesson keeps getting learned:  Don’t get too comfortable here.  Don’t get too comfortable anywhere…

You live in a shadow.