On a recent trip to Israel, and just ahead of the Pope, we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. A couple of years ago we had similarly visited Auschwitz, so felt prepared for the horrors, but even so, walking through the crowded galleries leading off either side of the prism that houses the complex and seeing the tributes to the six million Jewish dead was both poignant and painful. Even now, the attempted extermination of an entire race beggars the imagination – yet it happened. And for no other reason, it would seem, than because these people were different. They were hard working and successful in a society still struggling with recession … and the newly emergent Nazi powers, who enforced their rule by repression and intimidation, were looking for a scapegoat.
How could supposedly civilised men and women have done this to their fellow human beings? How could the rest of us have stood back and watched? The answer to the first is the real and enduring presence of evil, still relentlessly working to destroy all that is good in creation and which latches onto and exploits any willing host – in this case the Nazi regime. In this world, whatever comforting fiction we adopt as belief, the reality is that we are caught in a spiritual battle and each one of us has to choose.
But the answer to the second question is perhaps even more shocking. Many at the time of the Jewish purge claimed afterwards they simply hadn’t known what was happening. For some this may be true, but equally incontrovertible is the fact that many did know, or at least suspected, the truth, and chose to look the other way rather than confront the horror and be forced to act. Inevitably fear and the desire for self preservation must have played a part. For the church in Germany, for instance, which chose to ignore the treatment of the Jews. For men and women who saw the cattle trucks being used as transporters, or who lived close to the camps. For the allies, who received intelligence of the atrocities, but still did little to help Jewish refugees reach safety. Of course, this is not true of all, and there were many who did make a stand and try to help. The German pastor, Bonhoeffer, for example, spoke out fearlessly against the Nazi regime, and was himself sent to a concentration camp, where he subsequently died. Many ordinary men and women took Jews into their own families, hiding them till the end of the war, and many more helped them escape – as, for example, the King of Denmark, Christian X, who in brave defiance of the persecution of some 8,000 of his subjects, reportedly chose to wear a yellow star in solidarity, and helped organise a mass escape that has won Denmark the undying love of Israel ever since.
But, whatever the tales of bravery, Yad Vashem is both a memorial to the dead and indictment of humanity as a whole, because the first response of many of us, faced with clear injustice, cruelty and the intimidation of others … is often to look the other way. So have we leant anything? The short answer would seem to be, not much, because once again worldwide we’re seeing the same spirit of vicious intolerance and intimidation on the rise. Evidenced in the increasing number of violent attacks on Jews throughout Europe. In the threat of some Arab states to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth … but also, here in the UK, in things such as the intolerant imposition of equality and diversity laws so as to silence any and all views in conflict with the new ideology. There are many such examples and, once again, the first response of those not directly affected is often to look the other way.
But, coming back to Yad Vashem, perhaps most moving of all, to me at least, was the separate Memorial to the children, hollowed out from an underground cavern as tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust. To walk into and through the darkened dome, with the seemingly infinite reflections of candles winking like stars in an endless void, and to hear the whispered name of each child, recited without embellishment in a continuing cycle that takes three years to complete, is indescribably sad. “Who knows what the world has lost?” asked out guide. “One of these children might have discovered the cure for cancer, or a new form of energy, and now we’ll never know.”
Indeed, how can we possibly know in what ways the world has been impoverished by the loss of these young lives? And, as I looked up at the star-studded firmament of the dome, I found myself thinking of the 7 million innocent children whose lives have similarly been terminated in the UK since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967. Globally, of course, that number is a mere fraction, because worldwide the figure of aborted babies since WW2 is a staggering 1.5 billion, a number increased each year by an estimated 50,000,000.
We are told as justification for this mass slaughter that abortion is a vital part of women’s rights. Women, goes the mantra, have the absolute right to choose what to do with their bodies, which overrides any putative right of the foetus; which of course before birth isn’t fully human anyway. Really? It may be pointed out that the vast majority of these women had the right in the first place to choose whether or not to have sex, but we are told that unrestrained sexual licence is also a fundamental human right these days, and the only answer therefore is not to teach restraint, which is unacceptably judgmental, but increased contraception and industrial scale abortion. Only by employing these policies, we are told, will we curb population growth, and ensure the survival of our species. So the somewhat bizarre result is that we encourage children to become sexually active from around the age of 12 – maybe even younger if they’re ‘ready’ – and then we mop up the mistakes.
What madness is this? 1.5 billion lives lost!
How many of those unborn babies had some vital and unique contribution to make to humanity that has now gone forever? And how many more had no special role to fulfil, other than the right to live their lives as they chose? Yet all alike have been jettisoned, like so much flotsam, with barely a thought. And yes, we know that many women faced with the problem of unplanned pregnancy agonise over what to do, and that many suffer from the burden of that decision for the rest of their lives, emotionally, mentally and physically. But the bottom line today is that life is cheap, with the voiceless innocent too easily sacrificed on the altar of self-interest.
The planet groans under the weight of this unfulfilled and lost potential! We, who are alive, have surely been immeasurably impoverished in ways we will never now know. We need a similar memorial to the one in Yad Vashem to the millions of lost children who have been denied all possibility of life. We need to honour and grieve for them. We need to remember.