Tuesday evening I went to the HeartStorm Farmstead where gracious owners Kim and Mike, Rabbi Raskin from Chabad of Southern VT, and Baltic Truth Holocaust Documentary, were hosting Holocaust survivor Elly Gotz, who was there to tell his miraculous story of survival. Gotz was 13 years old and living in Kovno (Kaunas) Lithuania when war broke out in 1941. His story is terrifying and he tells it with passion and heart and, dare I say, humor. Of the 160,000 Jews living in Lithuania before WWII less than 10% survived.
Mr. Gotz’s message is extremely important in today’s divided world. He talked about hate. He told us that after the war he hated Germans and wanted to kill them. He had to find a way to put aside that hate in order to live. He quoted Buddha at the end of his talk and said, “hate is like swallowing poison hoping it will kill the other person.”
I have been thinking about Mr. Gotz’s message from a psychological perspective. He had every right to hate the group of people who attempted to eradicate all Jews and decimated his country, his town, his friends, and almost his very being. But why does the average person in our society hate?
People naturally flock to those who are similar to themselves. Humans tend to fear the unknown and things that they perceive as different. This was adaptive in pre-historic times. So what do we do when we are confronted with difference? We become afraid and we react with the fight or flight response. This means we might either disparage the “other” or we shy away from them. Yet nobody wants to see themselves as mean or cowardly. So we must make up a reason to believe that our behavior is acceptable in order to feel good about ourselves. We quickly adopt some bias that will make our internal feelings of fight or flight reasonable. There is a long list of prejudicial statements we might grab on to for this reason and we end up believing that the “other” deserves our negative attitude. From there, it is easy to see that we might dig in deeper and over time a small prejudice can blossom into full blown hate.
There are so many things that divide our society — color, politics, religion — the list goes on. We need to get better at pushing ourselves to get to know people who look, act, and sound different. When we do we tend to find out that we have more similarities than are apparent from a distance. In our modern world individual variation is actually something we should celebrate and not fear.
Let us return to Elly Gotz and our evening at HeartStorm. We were joined by the film crew of The Baltic Truth. I looked at their website and the first thing I read was this:
“Holocaust education is not just memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews but understanding how millions of ordinary people were convinced that killing Jews was required.”
I think of the Pyramid of Hate that I have seen on ADL literature. Those biased attitudes that we develop to feel good about ourselves when we are afraid of differences can put us right at the base of that pyramid. And if we aren’t careful we will find ourselves climbing up level by level.
Jeff Hoffman and Eugene Levin at The Baltic Truth are telling the as yet untold story of how WWII played out in Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus. They are bringing to light the fact that the people who committed the worst atrocities against the Jews were later hailed as heroes. Because Eastern Europe, and specifically the Baltic States, were behind the iron curtain for decades after the end of WWII, the stories of what happened there had been forgotten except by those who lived through the terror.
I applaud Elly Gotz for telling his story over and over to teach children about the trap of hate and I support The Baltic Truth crew for bringing more Holocaust stories to light.
To see the trailer for The Baltic Truth click HERE and then click the yellow box on the next page.