Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Words matter

Wednesday, July 24, 2019









Photo by Tom Maday

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

On July 4, I visited Auschwitz with Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie — and a survivor of the Nazi death camp.

“How could this happen?” she asked me not long after we arrived. “How could people turn on their neighbors?” My first reaction was to say there really is no response to how members of the human race could be so callous and brutal, to the point of targeting people for extermination because of their heritage and religion.

Yet, that is not a satisfactory response. Such brutality does not come naturally to human beings; it is taught progressively through the creation of a false narrative about others, which, step by step, is accepted as the new normal.

Erik Larson’s best-selling nonfiction book, “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” provides a unique window into how such a narrative grows. Larson aims to show why it took the world so long to recognize the grave threat Hitler posed to the world.

He tells the story of William E. Dodd, an American historian from the University of Chicago, who was chosen by President Roosevelt to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. He and his family were at first enthralled by the “New Germany” that emerged from the ashes of World War I, as they witnessed a war-ravaged country full of energy, enthusiasm and excitement for a new future.

But as Hitler’s rise to power came with mounting persecution of Jews, Dodd’s excitement turned to fear. He telegraphed the State Department firsthand accounts of attacks on Jews, the censorship of the press and the enactment of new laws that restricted the rights of the Jewish people and minorities. He became alarmed when his superiors treated his communiques with indifference. His reports were considered too sensational to be reliable.

He also witnessed how his interlocutors in the Nazi government, Göring and Goebbels, used their charm to distract his diplomatic peers from the terror they were planning and implementing. His initial hopes of using reason to dissuade the Nazis from their reign of terror turned to despair, a despair that only deepened as many people he thought otherwise reliable downplayed, tolerated and even ignored the increasingly bigoted acts of  brutality against Jews committed by the Nazi regime.

What became clear to Dodd was that Hitler’s rise to power and the policies that led to the Holocaust developed through calculated stages. First came the bigoted language targeting a minority. It was dismissed by society as it initially came from a few, but in time others reinforced the message, giving it credibility. While otherwise not countenanced in society, the growing numbers gave such language a semblance of acceptability.

The next stage came as those targeted were defined as “other.” The “other” soon became the scapegoat, responsible for the grievances people were told they should have, especially as they reflected on their experience of loss from the first World War. This allowed a narrative to be created for the nation, whose rise to greatness could only be achieved through the elimination of those who thwarted that potential.

We need to listen hard to Fritzie’s question: “How could this happen?” We need to understand that it all began with words. Words that called people “other,” that targeted people as worthy of fear, or threatening to our national greatness, and then eventually dangerous and requiring elimination.

Next year, the world will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps the Nazis used to imprison and exterminate 6 million Jews and countless others. We owe it to those who perished and their families never to forget.

But we also owe it to ourselves, for sadly we live in an era that is witnessing a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism and hate speech. We see it in the barbaric assault on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Europe marred with swastikas, in the hate speech that speeds across the internet linking like-minded bigots and in the delusional minds of those who continue to deny the reality of the Holocaust.

Yes, this is about speaking out in defense of our Jewish brothers and sisters. But as Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, reminds us: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.” We have to show the same intolerance for hate speech that targets others who are easily marginalized in society — Muslims, migrants and refugees —  all for the purpose of stoking fear in people who feel disaffected in a changing world.

Admittedly, we are not in the 1930s of Ambassador Dodd. Yet there are similarities that cannot be ignored. We must continue to be vigilant, and be ready to speak out. The chilling poem of the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller is a stark reminder of what is at stake:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In addition to speaking up, we also need to make a special effort to teach our children about the lessons of the past. Statistics reveal that nearly 60% of our teenagers today have never heard of Auschwitz or any of the Nazi death camps. It is up to us to teach our children to love — before others teach them to hate.

Photo caption: Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, and Cardinal Cupich talk underneath the entrance gate at Auschwitz in Poland July 4, 2019. (Photo by Tom Maday)


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