When I share with others that my mother survived the Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen, many people say, “I didn’t know that your mother was Jewish.” It’s an understandable assumption. Hitler identified Jews as the scourge responsible for Germany’s economic and social chaos.
In other words, Jews served as the Nazi Party’s scapegoats. The Holocaust sought to heal Germany’s troubles by eradicating the perceived underlying problem: the Jews.
But my mother was Roman Catholic. Her father served in a renowned tank Division of the German Army to the very end of the war.
My mother’s experience highlights the chilling logic of scapegoating. Persecution of and violence done to one group never brings the security and prosperity that political leaders promise. So, the hunt for groups to blame broadens.
People who advocated and even expected to benefit from scapegoating, can find themselves on the wrong side of the barbed wire. One day they may even find an invitation to meet the gas man in their mailbox.
The Nazis designed Mauthausen to exterminate prisoners by labor. Prisoners received starvation rations and lived in deplorable conditions. The work was crushingly strenuous and the hours inhumanly long. German industry profited from slave labor, and the Reich accomplished mass execution.
Originally the camp held mostly adults. In 1944 the number of juvenile inmates began to rise dramatically. My mother entered the camp that year at the age of fifteen.
People have asked me how my mother wound up in a concentration camp. I’ll let the Nazis tell you, since it brought home for me the grisly trajectory of scapegoating.
By March of 1945 Mauthausen imprisoned 78,000 juveniles. The Germans classified these inmates into groups. Nearly six thousand were foreign civilian laborers, followed by five thousand political prisoners, then almost four thousand Jews, and so on.
My mother couldn’t have been in any of these groups. But I think I found her classification: anti-social element. She was one of twenty young people sent to work to death for being an anti-social element.
Scapegoating is a perilously slippery slope. The violence and subjugation visited on one group gradually spreads to others. Eventually, everyone looks over their shoulder and watches what they say around the neighbors.
I share these thoughts in part as a belated contribution to Holocaust Remembrance. And I also relate my mother’s story because we Americans are looking for scapegoats to allay our fears and to soothe our economic frustration. Terrorist violence frightens us. The working and middle classes are outraged by years of lost jobs and a declining standard of living.
We’ve been assured by many in power that the solution to our problems lies in finding the right group to blame. Immigrants and refugees are being singled out as a threat to both our safety and our jobs. We’re told that we can regain our security and revive our economy by locking them up, sending them home, or barring them from our shores in the first place.
As I said, this is a slippery slope. Humans have been doing this since, well, there were humans. It never ends well.
I am distressed about and morally offended by what we are doing to those we have singled out as scapegoats. And I am deeply concerned about what we are doing to ourselves in the process.
Check out my blog Looking for God in Messy Places.