It started in 1939.
Nazi Germany launched its euthanasia program, using poison gas to kill people whose only crime was to be mentally ill or physically disabled. They were unworthy of life, the Nazis had determined.
After Adolf Hitler’s Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, in June 1941, they started using mobile vans to gas hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Jews, Roma and the mentally ill. The Nazis added the hermetically sealed vans to their arsenal after their rank-and-file murderers whined about the mental and physical toll of shooting so many women and children.
This was just the beginning.
That same year, the Nazis decided to wipe from the face of the earth all Jews — including their Jews, in Germany — by deporting them to killing centers and gassing them. The “Final Solution,” they called it, and Zyklon B was the gas of choice. At the height of the deportations, 6,000 Jews a day were gassed at Auschwitz.
By the end of World War II, the Nazis had killed more than 6 million Jews.
As White House press secretary Sean Spicer illustrated this week, we can never assume that most Americans know this.
On the first day of Passover, Spicer attempted to cast Syria’s Bashar Assad, who recently used sarin gas on his own citizens, as more evil than Hitler. He did this by misrepresenting the Holocaust.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer said during a press briefing. “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
A reporter asked Spicer later in the briefing to clarify this shocking misrepresentation of Holocaust history.
Spicer’s response: “I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. … He brought them into the Holocaust center; I understand that. But what I’m saying, in the way that Assad used (gas), where he went into towns, dropped (it) down to innocent — into the middle of towns. … So the use of it — I appreciate the clarification there. (Saying Hitler did not use chemical weapons) was not the intent.”
The worldwide outrage is heartening, but my God. How is the White House press secretary even capable of this?
Spicer acknowledged the inexcusable, but only incrementally. First he attempted to walk back his comments in a statement: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.”
Later that day, he told CNN: “I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which, frankly, there is no comparison.”
By Wednesday, he was in full triage mode.
“It really is painful to myself to know that I did something like that,” he told Greta Van Susteren in an interview at the Newseum. “I made a mistake; there’s no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have, and I screwed up.”
There is no apology to mitigate the harm of Spicer’s comments. This was no slip of the tongue. This was a false narrative about the Holocaust, and when given the chance to rephrase, Spicer doubled down. He has dishonored the millions who died in the Holocaust, survivors and generations of their descendants who still grieve.
Such an alarming disregard for the truth cannot be undone with an admission that one has “screwed up,” no matter how sincere the regret. The press secretary denied the facts of the Holocaust, and he did this as spokesman for the president of the United States.
We are better than this.
We must be.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his memoirs, “Night”:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
“Never shall I forget that smoke.
“Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
“Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
“Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
“Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
“Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
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