Dachau, Treblinka, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz. I have found it puzzling how an entire world could not have known what was happening to the Jews during WWII. Years ago, I asked my mother-in-law, Maud, “Did people in Europe really not know what was happening to the Jews during the war?” She and my father-in-law Raymond, were Belgian citizens, lived in Belgium during the war and lived through the devastation and horror of it all. There were rumors of work camps for Jews, she said, and even some camps where Jews were killed, but no one believed those rumors because they were too fantastical. She did mention her father who in later years told them of a train he saw rumbling through the Belgian countryside with arms sticking out of the barred windows on boxcars. She was silent for a moment and then went on to tell of more stories that affected our family during those dark times.
My father-in-law was a college student in Germany before the war and while walking by a park, noticed Adolf Hitler giving a speech. He stopped to watch for a while, foregoing giving the infamous salute when the crowd did. He said he noticed police officers watching him and instantly became uneasy. He started to walk again to get away from that park.
After Raymond and Maud were married, WWII broke out. As Hitler moved across the continent, he needed a bigger army. The Nazis conscripted Raymond to join their army. Not wanting any part of Hitler, Raymond and Maud bought a tandem bicycle and fled to France, pedaling over 500 miles to escape the Nazis. Maud said they cycled along with many men on bicycles doing the same thing. They pedaled and stayed just head of the German advances until they reached the Mediterranean Sea. There was no place left to go. The Nazis seized them and their bicycle and sent them and other refugees back to Belgium by way of train, one for the women, and one for the men. Not wanting to be separated from Maud and figuring either the men were going to a work camp or the army, Raymond snuck on to the women’s train. The women on the train helped Maud hide Raymond from the Nazi guards. They arrived back in Belgium and for whatever reason; the Nazis didn’t bother with Raymond anymore.
Maud and Raymond had their first child during the war. Maud talked of how she would be going about caring for the baby, caring for the house or going to the market when the air raid sirens would suddenly sound. She said she could tell if the planes flying overhead were going to drop bombs or if they were just flying over by the sound of the whine from the plane’s engines. If a bombing raid were imminent, all would flee to their basements to wait out the bombs. One day Maud and Raymond were having a picnic in their back yard. The baby was in her high chair. The air raid siren went off and after ascertaining it was a bombing raid, Raymond picked up the baby, high chair and all, and he and Maud ran to take cover in their basement. After the raid they came upstairs to assess the damage and found shrapnel from a bomb in their backyard exactly in the place where the high chair had been.
One more story. Maud’s brother, George was a captain in the Belgian Army fighting Hitler’s army. George was captured and became a prisoner of war of the Germans and was placed in a prisoner of war camp for officers. Toward the end of the war, the Germans were running out of money and sent half of George’s camp home for two weeks with the understanding they were to return in two weeks. Before one thinks, “Who would ever go back?” the commandant gave them a warning. If they didn’t return their bunkmate would be shot and killed. George was the one who was being allowed to go home to his wife and three young children. George’s bunkmate told George not to return. He explained that he was a single man and George had a family. Don’t come back, the bunkmate said, don’t come back. George went home, went into hiding, and didn’t return to camp. George, while grateful to be with his family, was forever haunted by his decision.
I, along with the rest of the world have watched the horror that unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend. I saw the young men, seethingwith hate and misplaced pride in an evil ideology march defiantly through the town square. The men are about the same age my parents-in-law were when they were fleeing the Nazis on a tandem bicycle. They are about the same age as George when he had to make the life and death decision about whether to return to a prisoner of war camp. They are about the same age as the man who sacrificed his life for George and his family. I would like to ask them if they have ever tasted the metallic taste of fear in their mouths as George had. Have they ever experienced the bone numbing fear of Raymond as he hid from the Nazis? Have they ever had to cower in a basement praying a bomb wouldn’t hit their house while trying to soothe anxious children? No. The members of these groups are ignorant people, ignorant of history, ignorant of the abject terror and horror the Nazis perpetrated on a world not so long ago They have had the luxury of passing time, of living in a land of paved streets and reliable power grids, not in bombed-out cities and ration books. They gleefully march and spew their hate-filled rhetoric, all the while knowing there are police officers to help quell the violence and protect them from harm. They are despicable human beings.
People aren’t born to hate like that, what in their lives flipped that switch to make them so devoid of human feelings or to misunderstand history? It’s not up to us to help save them from themselves. We have to raise the alarm to stop them and their ilk from spreading their hate and poison. But how?
Heather Heyer’s mom knows how. In her unimaginable grief, she is standing up to the Neo-Nazis. I look for her to lead the way, to become the face of the battle to this very dire threat to our nation. People have marched in peace and held candlelight vigils all across America all in unanimity against the scourge of these warped white supremacists. Marches are still being planned, resistance groups are being formed in many cities to bring citizens of our beloved country together to show solidarity in the face of these hate groups.
I find I am answering the question I asked my mother-in-law of how evil could have happened right in front everyone. I am living in those times. Evil sneaks in while one isn’t looking. With the benefit of history, we have seen how insidiously hate and resentment are stoked until it is too late to stem the evil. We must call on our politicians not only of our country but also of other countries if necessary to help us keep the promise the world made to future generations “Never again.” We citizens have to stay focused, to demand action. This is our moment to make our mark on history. This is the moment our children will tell their children about when they ask, “What did our family do to stop the Neo-Nazis?” What will future American’s think about us at this time in history? Maud and Raymond would tell us: “Don’t stay silent. Shout it from the rooftops. Remember. Never again!”