WASHINGTON — The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army as it pursued the retreating Nazis is upon us. It is perhaps a good occasion for me to recall what has been one of the strongest formative influences on my political point of view, the Holocaust. I learned about it in early grammar school under peculiar circumstances
In the seventh and eighth grades in the mid-1950s I was an unruly student. Particularly when the teacher would demand of her class “silence,” I became oddly loquacious. Thus I was forever being banished to the back of the room, where behind a partition of some sort the teacher maintained her third “library,” piles of old magazines such as Life and Look that featured photographs of current events. As my school was a Catholic grammar school, we had regular classes in religion, the grisliest moments of which were when our teacher told us about how the Romans martyred the early Christians.
It was after one of these lectures that I made the discovery that marked my political views indelibly. I was sent off to the “library,” with my head full of tortured and murdered bodies from some gruesome Roman slaughter in the Coliseum. Inevitably I turned to the pages of Life and Look , and there I discovered still more tortured and murdered bodies. There were piles of corpses, shirtless men with skeletal upper bodies exposed, and American soldiers, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, greeting the survivors. Faraway Romans had not committed this atrocity, German European totalitarians had.
As you have doubtless perceived, I was reading old magazine reports of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. The confluence of my teacher’s lectures on ancient Roman atrocities and those magazines reporting on atrocities that had been carried out just a decade before impressed forever on my mind the horror that mankind can wreak on a minority if not restrained by the laws and a Bill of Rights. It happened in the Holocaust against Jews. It happened in the Gulag against political dissenters and simple unfortunates.
There is more to my early experience of the Holocaust. The fact that popular magazines from the early 1950s still featured the pictures of starved and murdered inmates of Nazi concentration camps suggests, at least to me, that there was an awareness back then of what terrible things were done to European Jews in World War II. But the awareness waned. Of that I am sure because of the tremendous reaction in the late 1970s after the mini-series “Holocaust” was televised to a national audience. Again I saw the starved inmates, the appalling instruments of torture and murder, and the heartache. For some twenty years most Americans had forgotten this savage period of a brutal government’s attempt at genocide in the heart of modern Europe.
Since then we have done a pretty good job of remembering. There have been books and poignant films such as “Schindler’s List.” In Washington there is the Holocaust Museum. Now there is this commemoration of Auschwitz. But there is also in Europe a rising tide of anti-Semitism. There is the United Nations where anti-Semitic diatribes and literature flourish. And in the Middle East anti-Semitism is a matter of government policy in many regimes.
So it is important to remember the evil of the Nazis. It took decades to rouse ourselves to think about the Holocaust. It is about time we rouse ourselves to think about the Gulag too. And perhaps it is about time to confront the ruthless disregard for the dignity of man that goes on at the United Nations today. What this means to me is that our schools should teach history as the serious subject that it is. The Holocaust really took place, as did the Gulag. Our Constitution restrains such behavior. That it did not restrain slavery until the middle of the 19th century should remind us of how fragile a regard for human dignity can be. A clear understanding of history, political history at least, informs us there is a time to act if freedom is to be preserved. President George W. Bush is not considered a bookish man, but he must know his history. The time to act on behalf of freedom is now. He is answering history’s call.