by Gerry Silverstein
The late David Wyman who received a PhD in history from Harvard and taught at U Mass-Amherst for 25 years wrote a book in 1966 entitled “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945”.
Details of important events in human history often get lost with the passage of time. That is unfortunate as details of past events often provide context for current events.
In late 1942 the Administration of Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) obtained ironclad evidence that a program known as the Final Solution implemented by the Nazis to exterminate all European Jewry was underway.
Little if anything was done by FDR’s Administration for more than a year to try to mitigate one of the greatest, if not the greatest, episode of barbarism the human species has ever engaged in.
Dr. Wyman conveys the ultimate reality of what transpired when he states in the preface: “The Nazis were the murderers, but we were all too passive accomplices”.
The brutality employed by the Nazis is difficult to revisit.
In Chapter 1 Dr. Wyman details special mobile units of the German army known as Einsatzgruppen that rounded up Jews and killed them in mass shootings during the Nazi invasion of Russia.
A German construction engineer provided eyewitness testimony: “I saw one family of about six, all already stripped naked and waiting for the order to get down into the grave.”
A father tried to console his son of about 10 or 12, while his wife stood next to an older woman who was softly singing to a baby in her arms.
“Then came the order, “Next ten!” and the family started moving round the mound of earth to climb into the grave.” And then the sound of guns firing.
The German engineer saw that some victims were still moving so he called out to the S.S. man, “Look they’re not all dead!” to which he (the S.S. man) replied: “Ach! Tonight the grave will be filled with rubbish and so it’ll all be finished”
The Einsatzgruppen are reported to have killed more than 1 million Jews.
The Nazis used more than bullets to kill human beings on a massive scale. Most individuals know of the gas chambers that used Zyklon B crystals that generated cyanide gas.
Cyanide acts as a metabolic poison and it only takes about 15 minutes in an enclosed space to kill as many as 1000 human beings.
As long as the cattle cars rolled into the concentration camps with their cargo of human beings destined for extinction, the Nazis operated the gas chambers and crematoriums with barbaric regularity.
Less well known was the Nazis also used gassing vans for mass extermination, packing victims into enclosed trucks and then filling the space with carbon monoxide exhaust.
In total about 6 million Jews (and many other non-Jews) were killed.
Tragically hatred of Jews (anti-Semitism) remains a reality today in the US and worldwide.
The human species is the product of tens of million of years of mammalian evolution and 6 million years of hominid evolution.
The functioning of the human body requires the coordinated action of trillions of biochemical reactions every day allowing multiple organ systems to act together for a common good.
The complexity of events is coordinated by the human brain, an organ whose abilities are more appropriately aligned within the realm of science fiction than science fact.
Yet the human species has faults, very serious and grave faults, as the Nazis’ attempt to accomplish the Final Solution exemplifies.
How can the human species evolve into one where genocide, gender violence, slavery, racism and other types of barbarism become relegated to a distant past in a human history textbook?
The path forward requires a focus on what all human beings have in common, what we all share, for what we have in common is far greater than our differences.
This is not to say that the differences between individuals are of no value, or are unimportant, for certainly they have value and are important. But the foundation of who we are is what we have in common and that is what should unify us.
If All lives do not matter equally then our species will never forsake the barbarism that has been an all too common component of its evolution.
Gerry Silverstein lives in South Burlington and has studied human biology, human health and disease, and human evolution for more than 5 decades. He taught at UVM from 1985-2007.