Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, considered the largest and deadliest of the extermination camps established by the Nazis during WWII. There aren’t hard numbers, but an estimated 1 million people died at the camp (950,000 of the 1.2 million Jewish people sent there; the rest comprising Romany, Polish, and Soviet POWs). Most of us know the general history and horror of WWII, but we really only get a simplistic and somewhat sanitized view. Even when you visit the Holocaust memorials around the world (such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC) to bear witness to the atrocities that were committed, there is still a gulf between what happened “back then” and today.
Auschwitz wasn’t the only concentration camp; some were also extermination camps, and others were work camps. Nazi doctors experimented on prisoners in horrific ways in the name of “science” (or more accurately, simply barbarism, as there is not a lot of consensus that the experiments done hold any sort of scientific validity, aside from being completely immoral, unethical, and horrendous).
But seventy years is not a long time. Less than a lifetime, really, especially for someone who lives in North America or Western Europe. A mere blip in human history. But still we seem to relegate what happened in WWII to some distant past, feeling secure in our knowledge that something like that could never happen again.
Of course, it has happened again. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, only to name a few. Some are still ongoing: Syria. NE Nigeria. South Sudan. And these only name the large-scale conflicts that descended into genocide. Even while WWII was happening, and the Nazis were promulgating their theories about racial superiority, the US was in the middle of its own eugenics programs: sterilizing women with mental illnesses or living in poverty. The Tuskegee Airmen. Guatemala.
It’s easy enough to say “Never Again”. But one need only look at the plight of the Romany in Europe, the school-to-prison pipeline in the US, and the not-too-distant legacy of state-sponsored violence in Latin America today to wonder: did we really mean it? “The World’s most unfulfilled promise” is one way to look at it.