[Mott] Bearing Witness | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Mott] Bearing Witness

I inherited my love of history from my dad, who had a passion for it. A genuine scholar, the true stories he told around the dinner table were more engaging than anything in school textbooks. He not only knew the when and who, he knew the why, and the why allowed for a degree of understanding, even when the details were abhorrent.

My dad's most vivid stories revolved around European history between the two World Wars. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1919, he was a university student during the 1938 "anschluss," Hitler's annexation of Austria into the Third Reich. Hitler's takeover of my country was helped along considerably by a coup d'état by the Austrian Nazi Party, a raging global depression and widespread anger over the Treaty of Versailles. My father's book, "Condemned to Live," chronicles the details of his years during World War II.

Suffice to say that he had little choice when drafted into the Third Reich. He could join the resistance, putting his family in danger, or he could go into the army. To his lifelong regret, he chose the army, fighting in the trenches as a private, a rank he could not rise above because he could not prove his blood was "pure." Neither of my parents got the worst of it, though; neither were tattooed, intentionally starved or gassed to death.

On the other side of history's true stories—some of them so perverted that our minds mutiny at even feeble attempts at comprehension—are the deniers, men and women who would have us believe that those hateful acts never happened, or at worst, have been thoroughly exaggerated for effect. For every act of human atrocity, there are those who deny that it ever happened.

David Irving is such a denier, as is Richard Barrett, the self-avowed white separatist based in Learned, Miss., who is bringing Irving to Jackson next week. Irving would have us believe that his sanitized version of Nazi history is the correct one, and that Adolf Hitler was just misunderstood. Barrett would have us all go back to a segregated society full of injustice. Both are motivated by hatred of fellow human beings.

Mississippi history has a rich legacy of abhorrent historical details, from the cruelties of slavery to the rabid roots of segregation, to the horrors of Jim Crow-era terrorism. In our honest examination of that history, our society takes steps toward responsibility and reconciliation.

Few who lived in Mississippi during Jim Crow and the Civil Right Era doubt the cruelty, terror and murders committed in the name of white supremacy, just as few who lived through the decades of Nazi oppression doubt what Hitler and his henchmen did. To deny those truths, to say that it's irrelevant or even to ask why we need to bring up it again is to deny the millions of lives lost at the hands of human cruelty.

As the daughter of survivors from one of the history's most brutal regimes, I bear witness to the injustice of those events, as I do the injustice of white supremacy, the injustice of men who abuse their women and the injustice of poverty among so many others. Whatever color it is, whatever political stance it takes, at the root of intolerance for another human being is ignorance, fear and the need for control.

Humans have a unique ability to dehumanize those we fear or those we wish to dominate. And whether we choose as examples Chairman Mao's cultural revolution, the Spanish Inquisition, the eliminationist strategies against American Indians, or Nazi Germany's final solution for Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other "undesirables," history is full to the brim with bloody illustrations of mankind's skill for viciousness.

This is humanity. To call it inhumanity puts it at arms length, apart from who we are and what we're all capable of. Those who deny history or who cling to antiquated bigotries while sweeping the past under the rug do us all a grave disservice. And while people like Irving and Barrett have a right to speak, we can choose not to listen. Learning the true lessons of history, we can choose a different path. And this, I believe, is our responsibility to the human race.

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again," Maya Angelou said, her personal take on a more familiar quote by philosopher and poet George Santayana: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

History allows me to make sense of my world. When I understand the context of current events—their historical, political and economic framework—their content falls into place. History gives events the colors of my imagination, the flavors and emotions of the moment instead of the drab black and white of the printed page or the flat two dimensions of a photograph.

To know and understand what came before means we can choose a different road. When I recognize ignorance, fear and intolerance in myself, I can recognize it in all of mankind. In the recognition lies compassion for all people and the path to peace.

Remembering and honoring those who came before is simply part of the bargain.

Previous Comments

Ronni- is this the title of your father's book "Condemned to Live : A Panzer Artilleryman's Five-Front War"? Going to order it but wanted to make sure this is the right title.
It is, Bubba. Please let me know what you think of it.

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