Seventy years ago today, German troops invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II.
The eventual result was the destruction of much of Europe (to say nothing of Japan and elsewhere), the murder at the instigation of Hitler's Nazi government of two-thirds of Europe's 9 million Jews and the systematic death of millions more.
That number included perhaps 3 million of the intelligentsia and leadership of Poland, the wounded land on which my co-author and I have focused in our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.
No one -- not even Hitler -- knew on Sept. 1, 1939, that so many Jews and so many others would perish. But, as usual, a poet had at least a clue of the trauma to come, even if neither he nor anyone else could imagine the scope and the detail.
W.H. Auden, in his breath-taking poem, "Sept. 1, 1939," wrote this:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade. . .
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night. . .
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
At the break of that awful day, Hitler's fierce machines swept into Poland from the Baltic in the north to the Slovakian border in the south. They smashed the brave but inadequate Polish resistance. As Leni Yahil reports in the book The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, "The Polish army fought valiantly but never had a chance."
So 70 years later, what have we learned? Well, we've learned how to murder each other with more efficient weapons. We've learned to say "never again" to genocide but we haven't learned how to stop it. Witness Darfur today. But we've also learned -- at least some of us -- that if we don't teach history to our children they will neither know nor care about what went before them.
But what I hope we also have learned is a lesson the great religions teach, a lesson Auden captured so poignantly in his poem:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police:
We must love one another or die.
Every prophetic voice today must speak this message -- or 70 years from now, if not much sooner, we will send the armies fierce dictators across weak borders again, and yet again the unmentionable odor of death will offend the air.
(The photo here today of the German invasion of Poland can be found at http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/05/82305-004-9B11B5D2.jpg)
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OBAMACARE FOR FAITH?
Faith communities, it turns out, are having a larger-than-expected voice in the Obama administration, this report suggests. Well, everyone in America should have a voice in government. The question is whether constitutional lines are being crossed. That was my worry when former President George W. Bush created his faith-based initiative and it remains a concern under President Obama. It's an area Americans should watch closely.
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P.S.: Please plan to join me and my co-author, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, at one of the two upcoming (Sept. 10 and Sept. 13) events described here to launch our new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Rainy Day Books will be there to help you buy a copy and you'll even get to meet some of the people whose remarkable stories we tell in the book.