Holocaust Survivors

Richard has a fine story in the Post-Gazette about a meeting of Pittsburgh-area survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but it’s heartwarming to know that they meet, remember, and worry about whether that especially unforgivable, murderous chapter in the sordid history of the human race can happen again.

Reading Richard’s story reminded me of the first time I focused on the fact that I met a Holocaust survivor. I was traveling through Europe and encountered a vivacious older woman, probably in her 50s, with flaming red hair and an outgoing personality. We were talking, she shifted in her seat and moved her arms, and a crude numerical tattoo that I hadn’t noticed before was exposed. I looked at it and realized what it was, and she saw that I had seen it and decided to tell her story.

Her name was Bella and she was from Poland, she said. When she was young, the Nazis came and took her family away. She never saw her father and brothers again. She was separated from her mother, and she and her sister lived in one of the Nazi death camps. Her sister died, but somehow she survived. When the war ended and she was miraculously freed, she found that her entire family had been killed — but she felt it was essential that she live on. She related her story in a flat voice, and you could tell that she lived with those horrible ghosts and memories, but there was a definite steeliness to this woman who had endured so much.

Talking to her, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a member of the race that could commit such a monstrous act. I also was uplifted, however, by her positive attitude and by her view that, by surviving and going on, she was spitting in the eye of Hitler and the Nazis and their idiotic notions of an Aryan “master race.” There is still much to be learned from victims of the Holocaust.

Poland’s Agony

I think the story about the plane crash in Russia that killed so many of Poland’s leaders is one of the most tragic national stories I have heard in my lifetime.  This is not because of loss of life (although the death of 96 human beings obviously is significant in its own right) but because it seems like the fates are piling on the long-suffering Poles. 

It is the great misfortune of the Poles that their country has been trapped between Germany and Russia and has been overrun, pulled asunder, and partitioned at various times during its history.  Any student of 20th century history has read of, and been moved by, the valiant Polish cavalry charging German tanks during the first days of World War II, the brave resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during Nazi occupation, and the Solidarity movement that helped to mobilize world opinion against the puppet state that governed Poland in the days of the Iron Curtain.  It is, simply, horribly and cosmically unfair that the current leaders of the independent Polish state would die en masse as they were traveling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of one of the prior tragedies of the Polish state — the mass killing of thousands of officers and leaders of the Polish state by the Soviet Union at Katyn in 1940.

If history teaches one thing, it is that the Polish people are tremendously resilient.  They will need that resilience now, as well as the support of freedom-loving people across the globe, as they deal with another overwhelming tragedy.

Foreign Policy Blues

There has been a lot of criticism from the right, and some other quarters, of President Obama’s recent decision to scrap elements of a missile defense system for Eastern Europe.  The move has bitterly disappointed our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, who were to host elements of the system and viewed it as important to their security against a resurgent Russia.  Mark Steyn’s typically acerbic view of the matter is here. This article argues, on the other hand, that the disappointment felt in Eastern Europe is actually the product of a series of failures, many of them by NATO, to live up to promises and agreements.  In other words, the writer suggests that the bitter reaction in Eastern Europe to the missile defense decision should not be laid totally at the feet of the Obama Administration.

Still, foreign policy is a constant challenge, as nations jockey for position in pursuing what they believe to be in their own best interests.  Any national leader worth this salt is regularly assessing other leaders and drawing conclusions about whether those leaders can be pushed or prodded, threatened or cajoled, or moved by guilt or fear into changing a position or staying their hand in the face of a new challenge.  When Vice President Biden predicted, during the recent presidential campaign, that President Obama would be tested by some foreign policy crisis early in his presidency, I think Biden was thinking in this terms.

When world leaders look at America today, in the wake of the missile defense system, what conclusions will they draw?  Will they see a country that seems to be looking inward, focused on domestic issues like health care and the economy, to the exclusion of international affairs?  Equally important, when world leaders look at Eastern European countries, or other erstwhile American allies, will they see nations that are perhaps a bit less confident in the prospects of getting help from the West, and therefore more susceptible to sabre-rattling?   These are the kind of realpolitik evaluations that are not really affected by well-crafted speeches.  We need to show our allies that they can count on us in a pinch, and we need to make sure that other contestants on the world stage know that as well.