One week ago today was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. Seventy years since the Soviet army marched into the Nazi camp and liberated the remaining prisoners.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners left in the camp that day. But while the Soviets managed to liberate all of those prisoners, they were too late to save the nearly 1.5 million people who had already died in the camp.
My parents have served as missionaries in Poland for the past six years, and in that time I have made two trips to the grounds of Auschwitz, which was turned into a museum in recent years. The restored barracks are now filled with a variety of pictures, artifacts and exhibits that serve as a reminder of the atrocities committed at the camp. Of everything I saw during my two visits, there is one image in particular that continues to haunt me.
One of the exhibits consists entirely of items the Nazis confiscated from the prisoners arriving at the camp. There are massive glass cases filled with dishes, glasses and prosthetic limbs, just to name a few. There is also a long hallway lined by large glass windows. Behind the windows are mountains of shoes. They seem to stretch into infinity. The sheer number of them is mind-boggling.
Amidst the sea of aged and faded footwear, one lone shoe caught my gaze and refused to let go. It was smaller than the others, probably the shoe of a child. And it was white. Dusted with dirt, yes, but the blackened shoes surrounding it made it seem as white as snow. It seemed to me to be one tiny speck of innocence floating in a sea of death and despair.
That one image hit me far harder than any of the other exhibits I witnessed that day. None of the other many stories and images of atrocity evoked in me an emotion that could even hold a candle to the grief I felt over that one little shoe. Even now, five years after that visit, I am still haunted by the wearer of that shoe. Who were they? What was their life like? Did they know as they entered the gas chamber what was about to happen to them? But above all else, I wonder how other human beings could have simply stood by and let that little child walk to their death, much less actually condemn them to it.
Most sources place the total death toll of the Holocaust at around 12 million. However, a study at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. indicates that the actual number of lives lost could in fact be as high as 20 million. Regardless of which number is the most accurate, they had always been exactly that to me – numbers. I had never really been able to wrap my head around the true magnitude of the Holocaust. I understood that it was tragic and cruel, but the death toll has always been just a cold, hard fact, much like knowing that two plus two is four. It simply is, and that is that.
But as I stood in the museum that day staring down at a tiny white shoe, it suddenly struck me for the first time that the victims of the Holocaust were more than just numbers. The owner of that tiny white shoe was not just a number. They were a real person. A person who lived and dreamed and loved. A person who wore a pair of little white shoes.
But it was more than just that one pair of shoes. Every pair of shoes in that exhibit represented a real person. People with families and lives and dreams. People whose lives were snuffed out like candles because one man believed, and convinced others to believe, that their lives were worthless.
The week before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz came another anniversary of great importance – the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. According to CNN, the lengthy court case ended Jan. 22, 1973 with the Supreme Court affirming the right of women to get abortions. This case is considered key in opening the door for what is often referred to as a woman’s right to choose.
At this point you may be wondering what in the world the Roe v. Wade court case has to do with a Nazi concentration camp. Well, I have heard many people in today’s world refer to abortion as a modern Holocaust, saying that the two are deeply paralleled in their slaughter of the innocent. Personally, I am not entirely sure I agree with that comparison. However, I do believe that both abortion and the Holocaust stem from the same key issue – the definition of humanity.
Throughout history, people have attempted to place limits on who is and it not a human being. European settlers enslaved the natives of both the Americas and Africa because they believed skin color was the determining factor. Hitler tried to wipe out the Jews because of their religion. In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered because of their ethnicity, according to the BBC. And these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There is also the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the early 1900’s, the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995, and the list goes on. What it truly comes down to is this – whenever a group of people tries to determine who does and does not qualify as a full-fledged human being, atrocity follows.
Those who debate abortion today include a wide variety of arguments. Does the fetus count as part of the woman’s body despite being a separate life form? Is abortion acceptable at some stages of the pregnancy, such as before viability, and not after? Should it be allowed based on the situation, such as whether the mother was raped or whether the pregnancy poses a serious threat to the mother’s health? Can abortion be used to “spare” the child if they are discovered to have some form of disability? The list goes on and on. Myself, however, I believe abortion comes down to a far simpler issue. The question is not “Does the fetus qualify as human?” but rather “Do we have the right to decide that?”
Do we have the right to decide who does and does not qualify as a human being? Do we have the right to look at someone’s physicality, religion, ethnicity, stage of development, genetic defects or any other aspect of their person and tell them that they do not qualify for the basic right of life? How we choose to answer that question has massive implications.
If we have the right to determine who is and is not human, then the enslavement of the African and Native American peoples was perfectly justified. If we have that right, than the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then every single one of the 12 to 20 million deaths incurred by the Holocaust was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then the murder of a young child in a pair of little white shoes was perfectly justified. If we have that right, then none of these deaths should bother us because the victims were not even human anyway.
And yet they do bother us. I have seen visitors to Auschwitz moved to tears because they cannot fathom how humankind could be capable of such atrocity. Because they look at the pictures of those who died in the gas chambers, and instead of seeing lower life forms or lumps of tissue, they see people. People who look like them. People who, in a different time, could have been them. People who deserved at the very least the right to live and breathe. People whose deaths bother us because something in our gut knows that the murder of all those people was wrong.
The Nazis found all sorts of ways to justify the millions of deaths they caused. They claimed scientific research that supposedly proved the Jews to be subhuman. European settlers did much the same with the people they enslaved, claiming themselves to be far superior simply because of the color of their skin. We as human beings can justify practically any crime we want to. The question is not can we find a basis for it. The question is do we have the right to even try? If we take away someone else’s basic humanity, is it not possible that someone more advanced could come along and do the same to us? If we begin determining levels of humanity, who is to say we will come out on top? Who is to say we even deserve to? It seems to me that when we begin setting limits on someone else’s humanity, we willingly sacrifice our own.
At the end of the day, I believe that abortion does not come down to issues of viability or whether or not the fetus is part of the mother’s body. What it really comes down to is the issue of humanity. Does a life form with human DNA deserve to be treated like a human being? Or do we who bear the same DNA have the right to degrade it to nothing more than a lump of tissue?
Interestingly enough, Norma McCorvey, who took on the pseudonym Jane Roe for the purposes of the Roe v. Wade case, eventually changed her position and became a supporter of the pro-life movement, according to CNN. She now says she devoted her life to reversing the Roe v. Wade decision. In her mind, the fetus is a human child and deserves to be protected as such.
It is an issue that each of us must settle for ourselves. Are the fetuses aborted in this nation every year, fetuses who bear our same DNA, really just lumps of tissue? Are they just numbers to us, much like the victims of the Holocaust once were to me? Or are they rows upon rows of little white shoes silently begging someone to defend their right to live?
I have seen many members of the pro-life movement use the Holocaust as a parallel for the issue of abortion. They claim the two issues are comparable because both are genocides of massive proportions. While I understand the image they are attempting to create, I do not think this comparison is entirely accurate. My main objection is this – the murder of a grown human being is simply not comparable with the murder of a child still in the womb.
The Holocaust was one of the most horrific tragedies in human history, and I am in no way attempting to belittle it. But at least the victims of the Holocaust could fight back. Even if they had only their fists and even if their efforts earned them nothing more than a bullet to the head, at least they had that astronomically small chance. What defense does an unborn child have against its own murder? At least the victims of the Holocaust could plead for their lives or scream for help, even if those pleas fell on deaf ears. What does an unborn child have but a silent cry that no one will ever hear? At least the victims of the Holocaust have monuments in their memory to ensure that no one else ever suffers the same fate they did. Who will remember the unborn?
The truth is that they cannot save themselves. It is up to us to speak for them. So who will stand up and give them a voice? Who will fight for their right to live? Will we plant our feet, draw a line in the sand, and tell ourselves “Never again”? Or will we simply stand back and watch an entire generation of children in little white shoes march toward their own death?
There is a monument at Birkenau, the extermination camp associated with Auschwitz, with a long row of plaques that read in multiple languages, “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”
Will we choose to heed that warning and learn from our mistakes? Or will we allow history to repeat itself and line yet another corridor with empty shoes?
*Note: This article is an expansion of an article that was published by the Liberty Champion in February 2015. The original article can be found here.