The choir trip to the Baltic States turned out to be far more than I had expected, mainly because I had not expected very much. Before we left I had viewed the experience as primarily coming along for the ride. If you have been following the blog, however, you know that is was more than that. Here are two big takeaways for me:
- The horror of the Holocaust and how it–or something like it– could happen again.
In June of 1941, the world pretty much knew that Hitler was up to no good and that Jews were being treated badly. Shops owned by Jews in Germany and Poland had been closed or destroyed, books burned and Jews beaten, humiliated, and disenfranchised. Some had been rounded up and carted off to places unknown. Few, however, had any idea of what Hitler was actually up to, including those in Lithuania, who had no inkling of what was about to happen to them. Lithuania was low hanging fruit for the Nazis because it was small, defenseless, and had the highest percentage of Jews anywhere in the world, about 25 percent of the country’s population. Five months later almost all were dead, shot and dumped into mass graves—probably more than 150,000 men, women and children with another 50,000 or so men retained for hard labor for the war effort, almost all of whom would eventually die in concentration camps. Jews were being shot at a rate exceeding 1,000 persons a day. Fewer than ten percent were able to escape or survive in hiding. A similar fate was in store for Latvia with a smaller Jewish population of around 70,000. The smaller number of Jews in Estonia, fewer than 10,000, got wind of what was happening, and most escaped before the Nazis arrived, mainly by boat.
Meanwhile the world stood by, doing nothing.
What do you make of that? Were (are) the Germans “evil people” for turning a blind eye or, even worse, participating in these atrocities? Were (are) the Christians in the Baltic states “evil people” for allowing this to happen in their countries, not fighting back, and even aiding and abetting the enemy? Why did other countries not do more to help the Jews? How could this have happened? Could something like this happen again?
The answer is, I believe, not only that something like this could happen again but that something like this has already happened in places like Rwanda, Myanmar, Cambodia and in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I also think the answer is no, that the Germans as a people were not–and are not– “evil people,” nor were the Christians who did not do more to protect the Jews in the Baltic States. Nor were the World War II Japanese, many of whom did terrible things during the war, nor the Chinese people, some of whom tortured and murdered intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, nor the Russians who enthusiastically supported Stalin’s atrocities. Embry and I have been to all of these countries. We have met and talked to people and have made friends in some of these places. These people are not any more “evil” than the rest of us. And we Americans have our grim past with slavery and Jim Crow. I grew up in the South during the tail end of the Jim Crow period and as a child and adolescent did not question whether there was anything innately wrong with segregation.
Yes, evil exists in this world, and clearly there are evil people. But the potential for evil is in all of us. It is part of the human condition. If the circumstances are right, “good people” can do heinous things. We humans are basically herd animals. We follow the leader. We do as we are told. Most of us are wimps. We do not take big risks, especially when the consequences of not following orders leads to dire consequences for us.
That is why leaders are so important, and a bad–or evil– leader is capable of inflicting harm on human beings far exceeding anything we can contemplate. My guess is that in the spring of 1941 if someone had told a Jewish Lithuanian that in five months, almost every Jew in the country would be dead or doing hard labor, that person would have said, no way, no how.
And that is why right now in the United States of America, President Trump scares the bejesus out of me. This is not to imply that he is a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao, but rather that his leadership is taking us in dangerous directions, especially with regard to immigrants, the new “enemies,” just as the Jews were cast as enemies. On top of that his personality is certainly leaning authoritarian. And we do not know how this story is going to end.
- The resilience of the human spirit.
This is the other side of the coin of the human condition. While we humans—all of us—have the capacity for evil, we also have the capacity for good. There were brave people during the Holocaust who came to the aid of the Jews, protecting them in their attics and basements. Many paid for this with their lives. In this troubled world, there are ordinary people who are heroes and saints.
And we humans come back. After they had experienced the Holocaust in 1941 and then the Soviet Occupation from 1945-1998, you would think that those in the Baltic States would be a beaten and downtrodden people. But no. These countries are now thriving in many ways. They have strong educational systems, universal, affordable health care; and all are stable democracies.
The churches, almost all of which were locked up or converted to other uses, are all now open and back on their feet, many having been renovated and restored. While most do not attend church except on Christmas and Easter (Lithuania, which is Catholic rather than Lutheran, being the exception), you still get the idea that religion has an important role in the life and culture of these countries.
There are few signs of poverty, and as far as their troubled history goes, the horrendous record is there for people to see in museums and read about in history books, but they have moved on. It has taken some time. The end of the Soviet period was 30 years ago, a full generation. But if you did not know the history and were visiting for the first time, what would impress you would be the preservation of the medieval old towns, the shops and outdoor cafes, and the positive energy. You would not have a clue about the suffering they have been through.
Part of what has fueled the comeback of the Baltic is their culture and language. While we were in Lithuania, there was a huge cultural festival in Latvia, which we watched on television. Tens of thousands of people participated, wearing colorful dress, singing folksongs and folk dancing. These songs, dances and music have been going on for centuries, long before Latvia became a nation-state in the Twentieth Century, and you get the idea that the fundamental cornerstones of family, religion, culture, and language will long outlast the politics and governance in these countries or, for that matter, in any country. That countries go through periods of hell and despair and then bounce back gives me hope that maybe somehow, someway, our fragile planet will survive long term the challenges of human conflict and profound social and environmental change that we are experiencing right now.