Today marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. We vow never to forget, and never to let it happen again.
Today also happens to be the 77th anniversary of the final entry in Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day:
“What on earth am I to write? It’s as impossible today as on all the other days that have passed in one long whirl of unreality and fairy tale. I am no longer in Germany! I am in Denmark, at a country house; Møgelkær is its name, outside Hortens, and I’ve already been here more than a week! It’s unbelievable. And what have I not experienced in that week? Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe. Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”
Only a week earlier Tom Buergenthal experienced his own liberation, although he approached it much more cautiously:
“I saw some soldiers get off a military vehicle and walk towards the center of the Appellplatz [roll call plaza] in the direction of the big gong. They did not look like the SS and wore uniforms I had never seen before. But I was still afraid to move. Then I heard the sound of the camp’s gong. One of the soldiers was striking it as hard as he could, while another was yelling: ‘Hitler kaput! Hitler kaput!’ They threw their caps in the air and performed what looked like a wild dance.
“The Soviet soldiers who first entered Sachsenhausen had told us that we were free, that we had been liberated. I could not quite grasp what that meant. I had never really thought of liberation as such. My sole concern had been to survive from one day to the next.
“After the Russians had left, all of us who had greeted them around the camp gong started for the SS kitchen. I followed very slowly, some fifteen or twenty yards behind, always ready to take cover. I still could not believe this supposed liberation was real and not some trick concocted by the SS. They probably staged this liberation in order to draw us out of our hiding places.
“Maybe we really have been liberated, I thought as I climbed on the desk and pulled down Hitler’s picture. I threw it on the floor, shattering the glass and the frame. I spat on it and stepped on his face so hard that my feet began to hurt, but still I went on until the picture was torn to pieces.”
For both Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal the last week of April marked the start of yet another journey before liberation would mean anything. In Nansen’s case, it would still be several weeks before he was reunited with his family in Oslo (June 9, 1945). Tommy’s purgatory would last much longer: more than 18 months before he was miraculously reunited with his mother (December 6, 1946).
Recently I was laid up for a while with a (thankfully mild) case of COVID. I decided to spend the time curled up with a good history book, and I chose Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 by one of my favorite authors, Max Hastings. If there is one theme that runs throughout the book, it was the German people’s collective belief, until the very final days of the war, and despite all evidence to the contrary, that Germany would still somehow emerge victorious. As Hastings writes:
“At the summit of the Nazi leadership, fantasy still held sway. At one of Hitler’s conferences in February , [Albert] Speer drew [Admiral] Dönitz aside and sought to persuade him that the military situation was now hopeless, that steps must be taken to mitigate the catastrophe facing Germany. ‘I am here to represent the Navy,’ responded the Grand-Admiral curtly. ‘All the rest is not my business. The Führer knows what he is doing.’ Even at a much humbler level in the nation’s hierarchy, fantastic delusions persisted. After Cologne fell [early March 1945], Sergeant Otto Cranz . . . was surprised to hear one of his comrades insist mechanically, yet with utter conviction: ‘My Führer must have a plan. Defeat is impossible!’”
Indeed, Hastings is at something of a loss to explain how Josef Goebbels’s propaganda could “pervert[ ] the reasoning processes of one of the best-educated societies on earth.” As of 1939 German doctors, chemists and physicists had garnered far more Nobel Prizes in their respective fields than any other country in the world. German culture was the envy of the world.
And yet, lest we scoff at the insanity described by Hastings, let us remember that people today deny the Holocaust—I’ve met them; that people deny the Sandy Hook school shootings—I’ve met them (and Alex Jones has yet to face the consequences of his actions almost 10 years later); people deny the efficacy of vaccines (my wife and I, fully vaccinated and boosted, recovered quickly. A friend in our town—educated, successful—who was militantly anti-mask and anti-vaccine, was found dead in his home last fall, Ivermectin by his bedside); and the list goes on.
As Primo Levi was at pains to remind us:
“It happened. Therefore, it can happen again.”
But it can only happen if we, like the majority of Germans in 1945, lose sight of the truth.