Saturday, December 17, 2011

Together, We Are Invincible

[NOTE: This column appeared in the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska on Christmas Eve 1996, Connie's and my first Christmas there. The author is Tom Teepen, long time columnist for the New York Times and more lately for the Cox Newspapers. This is, as Teepen says, "a Christmas column," and in my mind it would be a good one to read each year as we approach Christmas and Hanukkah.]

In case you begin to wonder, yes, this is a Christmas column.

The International Red Cross has released documents from its World War II files showing the organization knew at the time that what we've come to know as the Holocaust was under way in Nazi concentration camps.

The Red Cross kept quiet through the war. It feared that raising the alarm would compromise its neutrality and end its ability to inspect prisoner of war camps.

See? A Christmas column.

Here and there - in Hungary, Romania - the Red Cross did manage to save thousands of Jewish lives quietly where opportunity occurred.

The Red Cross was not alone in silence, or in reasoning the silence served some other end of good. Holocaust scholars, especially Deborah Lipstadt, have shown that far more was contemporaneously known about the Holocaust than later accounts admitted.

The United States, like most nations, enforced tight restrictions against the Jewish immigration that could have saved millions of lives. Allied strategists worried that concern over the slaughter in the camps might distract from the focus on winning the war as quickly as possible.

The bitter, bitter irony in all this is that we know now, from miraculous tales borne out of the war by survivors, that the Nazis often shied when a rare bold town or a brave pastorate refused to serve Hitler's Final Solution.

Nazi persecution of German Jews before World War II would still rank as a historic affront to civilization even if the Holocaust had not followed. But could the mass murder have been stopped if powerful agencies - governments, the papacy, the Red Cross - had stood together in their terrible knowledge and had said no to the horror?

Recently, one of the few Jewish families living on a cul-de-sac in Bucks County, Pa., was awakened by the sound of glass breaking. Vandals had shattered the living room window to destroy the electric menorah the family had lighted for Hanukkah.

By the next evening, windows in all the other 18 homes of Water Lily Way, most not Jewish homes, and windows elsewhere in the subdivision, too, glowed with unaccustomed menorahs.

And there would have been more but local stores had run out as neighbors scurried after the stocks. As it was, merchants caught up in the idea had busily phoned one another to round up as many menorahs as they could.

The vandals have not reappeared. The dark that covered them one night was gone the next, defeated by candlelight.

It is so simple, though it often takes such strength and courage: When we stand in our common humanity we are invincible against those who would divide us meanly.

The lesson of the Holocaust is not everywhere learned. Not in Serbia. Not in Rwanda. Last week six Red Cross workers were murdered in their sleep in Chechnya, for practicing humanitarianism without preference.

But if the lesson is not yet fully learned, neither is it lost.

It is known, and known well, on Water Lily Way, in Bucks County, in Pennsylvania.

Even small lights hold back the night.

Didn't I tell you this was a Christmas column?

- Tom Teepen 

[For a fuller account of the Bucks County story see this in the Chicago Tribune.]

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