My mother and her sister are child Holocaust survivors. Not a day goes by that doesn’t involve Holocaust remembrance in some form, casting a long shadow across her life and a ripple through the generations of her family. Her father was murdered in a slave labour camp near Lviv in 1942, a memory too painful for her own mother to talk about after the war, though her postwar diary recalls his last days with agony and lament. She and her two girls survived in hiding, both because of and despite the actions of ordinary strangers around her.
No other relatives escaped, perishing either in Belzec extermination camp or in the shooting pits of Janowska, Lviv. I have visited their unmarked graves.
James Bulgin tells an important story that highlights how, to many people, the above placenames might sound unfamiliar, as Auschwitz fills Holocaust consciousness for the sheer scale of its horror (Hitler didn’t build the path to the Holocaust alone – ordinary people were active participants, 27 January). But in truth, all sense of scale is lost when imagining the implications of the Nazis’ genocidal politics, while the human psyche is overwhelmed by the implication of such murderous intent to humanity itself. More importantly, he correctly emphasises that evil can, under particular circumstances, look very much like any one of us. This is, as Hannah Arendt describes, the sheer “banality of evil”.
As a second-generation inheritor of my family’s Holocaust legacy, I firmly believe that racism grows where racism is enabled. The enablers can be active, or by virtue of apathy and indifference, passively looking away. Human beings might never rid themselves entirely of prejudice, being of itself a distortion of our own nature, but Bulgin touches on something fundamental: never to take for granted that our common humanity can only be preserved by us all challenging the very tolerance of hatred, as well as facing down the hatred itself.
• In response to James Bulgin’s excellent piece about wider active participation in the Holocaust, there’s another element that is also often overlooked. Hitler’s dehumanising methods, pitting Germans against minorities who were easy targets for whipped-up blame and hatred, involved attacks on physically and mentally disabled people. They were included in the racist legislation forced on Jewish people, with the addition of enforced sterilisation.
It was a fairly short journey from pointing out the costs of care for people he tagged “life unworthy of life”, while labelling “degenerates” as enemies of Germany, to his first mass-murder programme, Aktion T4. Between 275,000 and 300,000 disabled Germans were murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945.
Charlie English’s book The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, which follows the stories of artists in asylums studied by Hans Prinzhorn, suggests that the fusion of Hitler’s attitudes to disability and art (particularly artists’ explorations of insanity in the 1920s and 30s, which were prompted by Prinzhorn’s study) was an essential feature of his grotesque vision for Germany that led to the programmes of murder and genocide.
People who are aware of the language used by the Nazis to dehumanise vulnerable minorities are rightly sensitive about seeing similar terms and divisions being encouraged and normalised in current contexts.