During our recent Holy Land trip we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. I have visited that museum and memorial several times, and each time I am moved (often to tears) by the tragic loss of life during the Nazi regime's attempt to eliminate all Jews from Europe. Along with over 6 million Jews exterminated (including 1.5 million children), many other "enemies" we're also murdered – including Christians who tried to help the Jews, homosexuals. Gypsies, and political enemies of the Nazi regime. The Yad Vashem memorial does include a tribute to those who tried to help – including a tree-lined pathway called the Avenue of Righteous. It is estimated that 24,000 Christians risked their lives helping Jews escape the Holocaust, but sadly that was only a small minority of the millions of Christians who could have stood up to Hitler and the Nazi regime. Of course by the time the extent of the horror of the holocaust became apparent, it was nearly too late for most people of good will to resist.
That is one of the lessons of Yad Vashem: evil must be stopped at an early stage.
Another sad lesson of Yad Vashem is that evil movements often begin in a totally legal manner. Hitler and his party were duly elected in Germany. Once in power, their evil practices grew bolder and more powerful. But all of the early laws and discriminations against Jews were passed legally by the German government. Somehow the people of Germany – probably lots of good people who did not realize the growing evil – were fooled into believing that Adolf Hitler would restore Germany to its previous greatness. How did Hitler convince them? He used the oldest trick in the book: he made the Jews into the scapegoats for all of the problems of Germany. Creating an "enemy" is the easiest way for a leader to become popular and powerful. Hitler's bombastic speeches promised the hurting German population that he would lead them back into prominence in Europe. He blamed the Jews and built upon the already-existing prejudice of the German people against them. So the German populace voted Hitler into power, supported most of his rules and laws against the Jews, and then found themselves at risk if they tried to defy the Holocaust.
The current U.S. Presidential campaign contains an eerie parallel to some of the lessons of Yad Vashem. Too many of the candidates in both parties employ bombastic speeches, claiming that America can be great again if we deal with our enemies (whether they be Mexicans, Middle Eastern refugees, Wall Street, bankers, or simply the other party). Too many of the candidates make absurd claims, promises that exceed reality, and resort to name-calling threats that model the Nazi style of rhetoric. Many of those candidates appeal to the latent racism and other forms of prejudice in our American population. Are any of our American presidential candidates evil persons like Adolf Hitler? I sure hope not, but I do worry that American politics has devolved into the same kind of morass which gave birth to Nazism.
This is a time for good people, normal people, people of all faiths, and people with simple common sense to be careful, very careful. We all need to listen carefully, to ask discerning questions, and to THINK about our political decisions. If we believe "it can't happen here" (that nothing like the Holocaust can happen here), we are fooling ourselves. Evil is real, and danger lurks in our ordinary decisions. We must remember the motto of the Yad Vashem memorial: "Never again.” That is the ultimate lesson of Yad Vashem.