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Gary Horton: Timeless lessons to be remembered

Posted: April 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 17, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Last week our Starbucks friend Herman invited Carrie and me to attend a special Holocaust memorial service at Santa Clarita Valley’s Congregation Beth Shalom.
This special event was shared in spirit with Jewish congregations around the world in remembrance of the Jewish Holocaust. Congregation Beth Shalom’s service was particularly insightful in that Holocaust survivor Gitta Ginsberg told her personal story of having survived the Nazi purge by being taken into Catholic orphanages, first in Austria, then in Belgium.
Gitta was fortunate and was never confined to an actual camp. Her parents, however, were forcibly taken away, yet the family was miraculously reunited after the war.
Gitta recalled how the kindness and foresight of an adoptive Austrian mother, then kindness of orphanage nuns, then courage of British and American soldiers — all combined kept her alive and ultimately kept her family intact.
Crimes against humanity tore her family and an entire people apart, but in the end, human courage, kindness and spirit combined to bring us back from the brink.
That lesson that modern society could stoop to such crimes against humanity, and the subsequent hard-won restoration of decency, stands as an eternal reminder to all nations.
The Holocaust service included quotes from Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who also spent years in a concentration camp. He speaks of our need to remain ever vigilant against indifference and manipulation:

“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
But there was no one left
To speak out for me. ...”

Hitler manipulated his population using fear as the key lever. Enemies of the people, both externally and internally, abounded in Hitler’s propagandized world.
United in fear-motivated nationalism and cowed by fear itself, good-willed Germans who never would otherwise condone atrocities first indifferently tolerated them, then vigorously committed them.
Such is the power of the politics of fear and manipulation.
There are too many other examples of submission to politics and policies of mass violence.
Stalin managed between 10 million and 15 million murders before he was through. Chairman Mao is reputed to have cost the lives of 40 million to 70 million Chinese from his purges and great leaps backward.
Various African peoples seem intent on murdering hundreds of thousands of their own annually, motivated by everything from drugs to blood diamonds to tribalism.
Let’s not forget the slaughter the Spanish and Portuguese poured upon native South and Central Americans, nor should we forget America’s ethnic cleansing of our Native American peoples.
Humans are easily induced and manipulated toward mass violence and cruelty. We should recognize this to our core, yet time and again, our religion, pride, and patriotism get whipped up into distorted nationalism or religiosity that justifies and motivates the most atrocious of acts.
Today, Kim Jong-Un frightens the hell out of his people propagandizing pending attacks by the U.S. and South Korea.
Like Hitler and dictators long before and since, Kim uses fear to coerce a consolidation of power. He, and his family have left perhaps millions dead and may slaughter millions more.
Americans look at North Korea with amazement as to how any people could be so controlled — let alone how could it ever happen to us Americans, with our democracy and free press.
Yet we indeed slaughtered millions of American natives, justified by a self-declared “Manifest Destiny.” And 10 short years ago, waving flags from our SUVs, we pulverized Iraq, killing 100,000 civilians under the trumped-up premise of imminent Iraqi nuclear and chemical attacks on the American people.
Blinded by what many consider administration-manipulated fear, most Americans bought stories of yellow cake uranium and mobile weapons labs, all of which have since been repudiated and proven false.
Critics were effectively silenced, as speaking against the war was then viewed as insulting and un-American.
Today, many agree America was manipulated into a tragic, destructive war they wish we could take back.
So where does that leave us Americans, and where does that leave all of humankind? We recognize that even in a modern age of democracy we remain susceptible to manipulation and propaganda by the politically and economically powerful.
These terrible things don’t just happen to “others” — they happen to “us.” This truth of our human susceptibility won’t change; we must remain vigilant to promote good while resisting injustice to all.
Pastor Martin Niemoller concludes with these words:

“What heritage did I receive from my parents?
What will I bequeath to my children?
What gifts have I received from my brothers, my sisters, my friends?
What can I give to others?

If I can make someone’s life better
I will not regret the past
If I can help someone grow
I will not fear the future.”

Remembrance of the Holocaust and similar tragedies remind us to eternally resist injustice and indifference. We must remain committed to building — not tearing down.
Gary Horton is a Valencia resident. Full Speed to Port! appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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