Thursday, July 9, 2009

Never Again? A true account of my own journey from ignorance to the New York Times

I cried when someone told a Polish Joke in third grade. It was not because they were making fun of me. Whoever it was wasn’t making fun of anyone in our class, just telling a joke. I cried because my dad loved books and he loved being Polish.

According to my mom, he did not love being Polish until after his grandma died. She had come off the boats and never even spoke English. After she died, my dad became very interested in his heritage. The summer after the Joke, we went to Chicago to the Polish Heritage museum. We also had one bumper sticker on our car EVER. My dad hated bumper stickers because they always started peeling and made the car look trashy. But he broke his own rule, and the cars in line behind him at stop lights could read: Happiness is Having a Polish Pope.

My dad also loved history, especially of WWII. He watched every documentary he could find from our choice of four television stations. I loved Hogan’s Heroes, but the documentaries gave me a sickish feeling in my stomach. The sound of those old planes flying still bothers me. The low continuous drone bothered me more than the explosions that came after bombs dropped out of the bottom of the planes in the black and white clips.

The weekend before the Joke I had been flipping through one of my dad’s many books. I found a picture of something and asked what it was. Turns out I had found a picture of a gas chamber. It wasn’t the graphic picture of skeletal bodies piled high. I think it was a picture of two German children playing on a pipe or something. I don’t remember exactly, I just remember the conversation that followed.

My dad explained what the gas chambers were and what the Nazis had done to the Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. I had heard of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I had never put much thought into it. I knew of Anne Frank hiding in her basement and of Hitler’s mustache, but I had never wrapped my mind around it.

My dad was more the silent intellectual type, but I don’t remember him ever being too busy to answer a question; he never talked down to you, not even if you were seven. He told me that the first line of attack in the arsenal of evil was manipulation of the language. He said that in the German Children’s fairy tales, where we have a wicked witch, they had a wicked old Jew. He explained that the Germans grew up thinking Jews were not really human. After they accepted the idea that it was okay to get rid of them, it wasn’t a huge effort to accept that the Gypsies and Poles weren’t worthy of protection either. And so when I heard the Joke, I cried.

Hitler and I had a long history starting in third grade. He showed up again when I was a senior in high school. I had read The Stranger by Camus and thought the idea of Existentialism made a lot of sense. I admit, I was incredibly thick, but it was not for lack of effort. My dad had been using the term Objective for as long as I could remember, but I just didn’t get it. In a kitchen table talk about The Stranger, I confessed that I didn’t really see how someone could be wrong if they THOUGHT they were right. I chose Hitler as my example: How could Hitler go to Hell when he thought he was doing something good? My thickness was not for lack of effort by Dad either. “What is right or wrong is not dependent on what you think. Hitler’s feelings on the matter can not change the reality that what he did was evil.” I still didn’t get it. I know now I was struggling with culpability vs. objectively wrong, but then it bothered some bone made up of a warped understanding of justice. I decided I still thought Existentialism was for me.

I worked at a nursing home answering phones on Saturday mornings. The following Saturday, my dad showed up at work with a bag of donuts. This was impressive for two reasons, he showed up and he spent money. Ours was a family who brought our own popcorn to the movies (the three movies we ever went to before we could pay for our own tickets), who never got to pick something out in the grocery line, and who ate non-sugar generic cereal for breakfast.

He gave me the donuts and sat down in a chair facing my desk. He had come to talk about Existentialism. He explained who Sartre was and how his ideas had played out in real life. He talked about the horrible atrocities which flow from philosophical ideas not rooted in objective truth.

I guess I should mention that at this point in my life, my dad and I were not close. If he were not my dad, I am pretty sure he would have hated me. I was horrible most of the time. He had told me once that I sure knew a lot for someone who didn’t know anything. I would say that just about summed it up. But that morning in the nursing home something happened. I still did not understand Objective Truth. I could give you the definition but it hadn’t made it through my thick skull yet. But on that day, for the first time in years, I thought that maybe I was wrong and he was right. Even though I didn’t get it, I didn’t feel it, I had not made the emotional commitment to Objective Truth, I trusted his ability to think it through over my own.

This willingness to search for truth from the starting point that certain authorities knew more than I did followed me through my Catholic Liberal Arts College education. I began with the assumption that the Church was right and it was my job to make my brain get it. I assumed that certain things were objectively true whether I believed them to be or not.

Now, if you think I was being self deprecating when I called myself thick, you will see that is not the case. As a history major and a senior in college, Hitler finally smashed through the defenses of my ignorance. I am not jesting when I say it was just a few months before graduation. It was a class on historical research. As an example of how you move from documents to written history, the professor used the Nazi documentation of the concentration camps.

I had come a long way in my understanding of evil. But I am being completely honest when I tell you, that until I saw those documents, I had really believed that the holocaust was an evil consequence of war. I knew it had happened, I believed it had happened, but I didn’t know, or chose not to see, that it was a planned operation. Hitler didn’t need to get rid of all those Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and Catholics in order to ensure the success of his military operations, as I had always somehow managed to believe. He chose to. It was an operation not of desperation but a systematic, calculated and documented attempt to eliminate sub-humans. I told you I was thick.

And then a whole new can of worms was opened that is still squirming around in my head to this day. How did an entire population of Germans go along with this insanity? I hear the Conservative talk show hosts talk about the threats to liberty in the legislation being rushed through without being read by our enlightened congress. I have seen the manipulation of language in the abortion and euthanasia struggles. And I wonder if we are all being encouraged to be conspiracy theorists. My thick brain refuses to open up to the fact that America could be a place of atrocities. But then today I read a quote from a Justice of our Supreme Court from the New York Times:

I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.

And I see two German Children playing on a pipe. I see the piles of skeletal corpses piled just outside the city limits, I see the Jews marching from their homes with a few possessions in hand to a gated ghetto. And I hope the majority of Americans aren’t as thick headed as I. I hope it doesn’t take years of being faced with the facts to finally get it. I pray we never have to live through the past again, but something, some bone formed by my father’s understanding of justice, tells me I am a fool if I think it isn’t possible.

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