The Failure of Humanity to Learn: Reflections on Visiting Auschwitz

06/29/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

I felt compelled to go the epicenter of human brutality, murder and unimaginable degradation. I went there to bear witness to the innocent victims who perished by the hands of those who appeared in human bodies but lacked a heart, a soul, a conscience. As I walked the grounds of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I heard the silent screams of the approximately 1.1 million human souls who died an agonizing death there. Ninety percent were Jewish, and there were also Poles, Roma, dissidents, intellectuals, Homosexuals, and others. For some, death was a relief from the gut wrenching humiliation and suffering they experienced each and every day.

I made this arduous emotional and spiritual journey because I felt perhaps there I would gain an insight into why we, as human beings, continue to commit genocide after the Holocaust in so many places including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. I am yearning to understand why we do so little about the genocidal activities in South Sudan, Congo, Central African Republic and Syria and the other places on the verge of genocide. Genocide is defined as the intent to destroy an entire race, religion, ethnic or national group. I wonder what it is that we learned from Auschwitz. A former Auschwitz prisoner, Waedyslaw Bartoszewski asks that question in a most piercing way: "Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was, but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories awareness that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again. This is the work of humans and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return."

For now, my realization is that we have learned very little. Deep down, I think many believe that it will never happen again or it will just occur in primitive places that are not anchored in Western Values. However, the Nazis certainly proved that notion wrong. German culture before the Holocaust represented enlightenment.

Sitting at Auschwitz, I asked myself many questions about humanity, conscience and responsibility. In the silence of the early morning, I thought about the human demonic depravity that took place there and I thought about life in the world of 2015. What emerged was an articulation of what I often observe and wonder about regarding human nature and life in general. Perhaps it is worth considering these observations and looking deep within and reflecting with others on the paths of discovery and response, so that we might nurture our own humanity.

1. That the statement Never Again is meaningless unless it is coupled with real intentionality and action.

2. That many of us prefer the comfort zone of being the bystander and prefer not to intervene in conflicts that are not perceived as our own.

3. That we do not to take the pain and suffering of others into our hearts, because their burden is too heavy to bear and makes us uncomfortable.

4. That we as individuals do not know what to do -- or lack the understanding that we are powerful if we become voices of conscience.

5. That terror groups like ISIS or other terror groups or individuals who have no regard for human life really terrify us -- and that fear often leads us to retreat inward.

6. That we don't really believe that acts of conscience, conviction and courage do matter -- more than we can ever imagine.

7. That we often only pay attention to the demonic acts in the world and fall short in seeing and affirming the many wondrous acts of goodness and of standing up for what is right that take place all the time.

8. That countries need to make strategic and humanitarian decisions to save lives not just to protect interests.

9. That global conflicts and genocides also connect to our own way of living in the world, in our personal lives, in our communities and in our nation. Why in the world is it possible for Charleston to occur?

10. That remembering might be painful, but it should also be instructive and inspiring of what we want our legacy to be.

George Santayana said in the early 20th century: "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." I think in our world of 2015, I would modify his quote and say: Those who do not understand and believe the evil and good that humans are capable of, and fail to learn from what we in fact have done, will never be able to prevent human degradation and suffering.

I do not believe that this is our fate. However, we need to find the right forums in our families, in our schools, in our religious institutions, in our civic organizations, in our governments to really ask these questions and work in collaboration as people of good will to find better solutions than we have found in the past. This works starts with our own individual commitment to take seriously the human beings who perished in the Holocaust or in genocide and realize that it might have been us but that we had the good fortune for it not to be, at least not now. By doing our best to prevent human degradation anywhere, we are doing our best to protect ourselves and the future generations.

I will never forget the hallowed ground that I walked upon -- beneath which is buried over one million people. Permanently emblazoned in my soul are the images that each victim had a life, and that so many victims were children who were immediately sent to the gas chambers as they could not work. What I look for is the personal strength, the courage and the collaboration of others not to utter the vapid words "never again," but in taking the actions personally and collectively to prevent, call attention and aid victims of genocide and degradation, whoever they are and wherever they are. Indeed it is humans who will decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again.

Rabbi Lee Bycel serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa and is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco's Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice. He is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council but the views expressed here are solely his own.