Sophie Carter, a senior at Lewis and Clark High School, took second place with his essay, “Macht Frei.” Here is her essay:
Three generations of my family have walked beneath gates reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” each consciously grateful they were not among those imprisoned in the camps, and each time heartbroken for those that were. I have seen the grounds on which their valuables were taken away, the buildings in which they were subjected to torture, and the crematories in which their bodies were burned. I see the disrespectful acts of those who do not understand the immensity of the atrocities that occurred there. As Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and many other nationalities of visitors to those camps, we cannot understand the magnitude of the affront to human rights—to humanity itself—that occurred on the land beneath our feet; we cannot understand the depth of the enduring loss felt by those whose family members were affected. We cannot empathize with those who are of different cultures, backgrounds, and nationalities some thousands of miles away from us, but we can sympathize. Often, however, our human aptitude for sympathy fails us, replaced by apathy, in the midst of politics and war.
This failure of human nature is evidenced by the United States’ blindness as people were being hunted, herded and slain like animals in camps across Germany, Poland, France, Ukraine, and beyond. Too often, nationalism and utilitarianism cloud our ability to see beyond our own circumstances; we fail to see those who are unlike us as our equals, and to see the common good as our personal responsibility. Propaganda dehumanizes those who do not look, speak or pray like us, and it manipulates the minds of Americans in the same manner that it manipulated our enemies throughout World War II. Just like our human family in Europe and Asia, we are similarly susceptible to mistreating others in the name of our god, our politics, or our perceived superiority.
American inaction in the face of injustice in the case of WWII stemmed from a growing domestic hatred for immigrants following WWI, during which time refugees were viewed as “undesirables” from other countries whose presence in the U.S. would detract employment and finances from those who were already living, and often struggling, in America (PBS). Laura Roosevelt embodied this inhumane self-interest in saying that “20,000 charming [refugee] children would all too soon turn into 20,000 ugly adults.” This lack of humility led to stagnation in U.S. legislation, preventing most large-scale humanitarian aid. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor and author, demanded the rejection of isolationism in his 1986 Nobel prize acceptance speech, asserting that “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” This directly implicates the United States in its crime against humanity: refraining from the fight for justice due to domestic fear and prejudice. Not only did this indifference contribute to American isolationism, but a growing number of anti-semitic groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, contributed to the dehumanization of Jews and other targeted groups within American borders. Over 100 anti-semitic organizations propagandized their views across the U.S., much like the propaganda that allowed dehumanization across Europe; during this period, signs were erected on American soil reading “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.”
On a bureaucratic level, more concern existed about the fate of the oil industry, primarily driven by the Middle East, where rising tension between Muslims and Jews caused controversy, than about the fate of the targets of violence and discrimination in Europe. American leaders argued that we as Americans could not accept the risk of German operatives posing as refugees to enter the United States, even if it meant saving the lives of those escaping the Nazi regime. This risk of infiltration was exaggerated in order to rationalize anti-immigration and anti-immigrant policies, despite their overtly discriminatory nature and contents.
This discrimination has been a recurring motif throughout American history, and we have been committing these crimes of prejudice since the Second World War and long before it. In the 1950s, the West failed to recognize the plight of countries, turning to communism out of economic desperation, in the name of McCarthyism. In the ‘60s, many white Americans failed to have compassion for the mistreated African-Americans who stood and fought for equality in the face of segregation. In the ‘80s, much of the heterosexual majority ignored the needs of those who were suffering and dying from AIDS. In the ‘90s, politicians failed to recognize the systematic racism that allowed the proliferation of gang violence and drug addiction among black communities across U.S. cities, and since, many have begun a new campaign of ignorance against the world’s Muslims. The parallels between the political rhetoric of anti-immigration legislators of the 1940s and those preventing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees today are undeniable and unignorable. These conflicts arose out of the human fear of the unknown, but they were allowed to persist out of a willful ignorance to the circumstances of those who are unlike us. Mere discussion cannot ameliorate the effects of the Holocaust, only the correction of our behavior and our values, made to reflect the rejection of dehumanization in all forms, whether against other races, sexual orientations, nationalities, religions, or otherwise, can honor those who were lost to past atrocities. Injustices, even in seemingly benign circumstances, cannot go unnoticed by those who are vigilant—those who care to remember those who lost their lives to a dehumanizing regime, and who refuse to be indifferent to the devaluing of a human life. As said by Dr. Martin Luther King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” so it is therefore our personal responsibility to consistently uphold the values that we claim to respect. In remembrance of our collective history, we cannot allow ignorance, and we cannot allow inaction.
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