Auschwitz Under Our Noses
Nowadays, it seems impossible to understand why so few people, at the time of the Auschwitz liberation, even knew that the camp existed. It seems even harder to explain why those who did know did nothing. In recent years a plethora of respectable institutions — the Vatican, the U.S. government, the international Jewish community, the Allied commanders — have all been accused of “allowing” the Holocaust to occur, through ignorance or ill will or fear, or simply because there were other priorities, such as fighting the war.
We shake our heads self-righteously, certain that if we’d been there, liberation would have come earlier — all the while failing to see that the present is no different.
[ . . . ]
In the days since the documentary aired, few other news organizations have picked up the story either. There are other priorities: the president’s budget, ricin in the Senate office building, David Kay’s testimony, a murder of a high school student, Super Tuesday, Janet Jackson. With the possible exception of the last, these are all genuinely important subjects. They are issues people care deeply about. North Korea is far away and, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot we can do about it.
Later — in 10 years, or in 60 — it will surely turn out that quite a lot was known in 2004 about the camps of North Korea. It will turn out that information collected by various human rights groups, South Korean churches, oddball journalists and spies added up to a damning and largely accurate picture of an evil regime. It will also turn out that there were things that could have been done, approaches the South Korean government might have made, diplomatic channels the U.S. government might have opened, pressure the Chinese might have applied.
Historians in Asia, Europe and here will finger various institutions, just as we do now, and demand they justify their past actions. And no one will be able to understand how it was possible that we knew of the existence of the gas chambers but failed to act.
That emphasis was mine. And it pretty much sums up why I keep coming back to this story and feeling that it’s so important. Sure, there are plenty of horrible human rights abuses going on right under our noses. But the parallels with this one have crept under my skin, because of how we – as individuals and as a society – may go down in history for failing to pay any attention.