Today I heard a Holocaust survivor speak. George Pick turned ten years old the day he, and the other Jews in Hungary, were ordered to wear gold stars on their clothing. For the remaining months of 1944, through the end of the war, he and his parents endured 22-hour long curfews, hid in a factory, and feared for their lives. George saved his own life when he and a friend escaped from the Swiss orphanage to which they'd been sent for safe-keeping; two days later, the twenty other Jewish children kept there were shot next to the Danube River.
I'm still astonished by the experience. Selfishly, I can't believe I got to hear the story straight from the lips of someone who lived it. But more deeply, I'm reminded of the horror of the Holocaust - something that is easy to forget, as it is so difficult to comprehend. How could so many people become so hateful, while even more look on in indifference, or, at best, cowardice? How could they forget that those they killed were people, individuals with stories and feelings? Eichmann in Jerusalem has some interesting discussion of that, as do many other works, but in spite of reading about it, it's still nearly impossible to truly, truly feel, to understand it as something people lived through and died in.
Which, as usual, brings me to reading - not to understand after the fact (which is, of course, essential), but to try to prevent these things from happening in the future, to guard ourselves from indulging in such hate. Reading fiction is perhaps the most empathetic act we can do - inserting ourselves into the mind of a character. If the writer is doing her job, that character is truly human, and we feel through them. I can't help but believe that the more we read, the more human we become, through the forced exposure to other people's stories and other viewpoints. I realize reading is by no means a panacea (hell, Hitler read a ton), but I firmly believe that it opens a door, or at least has the possibility of doing so. And the more doors we crack open in our souls, the more we are willing to explore each other, the fewer chances for horrifying dehumanization. It's worth a shot, at least.
* A note: With all my emphasis on the moral enrichment available from reading, that doesn't mean I've forgotten that reading should also be ridiculously, overwhelmingly fun and entertaining. Not in the way that brussel sprouts are good for you but also a little tasty, but in the way that dark chocolate has anti-oxidants. So does red wine. Yum.