On May 7, 1945, the war in Europe was over. Starting at midnight of the 8th, millions of people would begin the process of rebuilding their lives. They would look for family, finding many of them dead or missing. Their homes, their possessions, gone. Their lives were destroyed.
I once spoke with an individual, a soldier in the British Army who was among those who liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. For Richard Cummings, it was a hard thing to witness.
“They were quite near death,” said Richard, remembering when he first walked into the camp. “They were rather skinny, sickly. I remember thinking that most would not experience a new life of freedom.”
We’ve all see the videos, the photos of Europe after World War II. The cities destroyed, after weeks or months of bombs dropped on them. The photos of those who were liberated from concentration camps, the haunted look in their eyes. This was, for most, the first time they have seen such atrocities. It was enough to cause one’s soul to wither.
“I rather recall a small part of me, my spirit died the very day I walked into this camp,” said Richard Cummings.
During World War II, during the Holocaust, 11 million people were killed. Of that number 1.1 million were children. Most people, myself included, cannot fathom the death of 11 million people in the space of only a few years.
Eleven million deaths.
Six million of those who died were Jews.
For those who were Jewish, during World War II, life became harder as each day passed.
When the war first began, when Hitler first came to power in 1933, you could say the Holocaust began.
On September 15th, 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were issued. These laws excluded Jewish people from public life. What surprises me is that many people don’t know or understand the scope of these “laws.”
The Nuremberg laws stripped the Jewish people of German citizenship and Reich citizenship. It also prohibited Jewish people from marrying or having sexual relations with anyone who had German blood. It also removed all political rights from the Jewish people.
These same laws, the Nuremberg laws, did not define a Jew as someone who was a practising Jew, but one who had Jewish heritage. Even if their grandparents or great-grandparents converted to Christianity, the would still find themselves in camps.
It wasn’t just the Jews who were prosecuted by the Nazi government. Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, and the Roma all found themselves a target.
For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, within months of the Nazi takeover, they began an intense campaign against the JW’s. By April 1st, 1935 the Reich Minister of the Interior ordered that the Watchtower Society shut its doors and cease all activity.
“I know when they came for us, for our family,” says Rudolph, who recalls this time from his childhood.
“We had the stories of this from other Kingdom Halls. My father made the hope it would not come to us.” Rudolph emigrated to the United States after World War II.
World War II had a direct effect not just Europe, but the whole world. The number of American soldiers, for example, who served during the war was 16.1 million. Worldwide that number is even more staggering: 690,000,000 served. The death toll was 72,000,000.
Can you wrap your minds around those numbers? I can’t.
Now, as we approach the anniversary of the end of World War II, I cannot but wonder if we are heading for the same thing.
Seventy-three years ago, the world came together to fight a way to end a regime built around hate. Today, I can see that hate again.
The United States Supreme Court has said that hate speech is protected speech under the First Amendment. We have Patrick Little, a white supremacist, running for the U.S. Senate in California. Patrick Little says the Holocaust never happened and any of the stories of the Holocaust are a lie.
That is just the tip of an ice burg that threatens to rip apart the fabric of society and drag America into an abyss of hate. Even I’ve had issues simply because I took a stand and had very hate-filled page removed.
So, as we take a moment to pause and remember those who fought, and died in World War II, be it soldier, civilian, Jew, Jehovah’s Witness, LGBT, or Roma, we must look inward at ourselves as a nation. Will we allow hate, xenophobia, anti-Semitism to take hold and guide our collective lives, or will we gather, in peace and love to ensure a future free of hate, free of discrimination, free of fear? Or will we allow racism and hate to be the order of the day?
As my principal at H. E. Charles, Paul Strelzin, used to say, “the ball is in your court. What are you going to do with it?”