Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. One person could not see another, and for three days they did not move from where they were. Yet all the Israelites had light where they lived (Exodus 10:21–23).
Another Day in Dachau
As I’ve thought about the passage above, I’ve often wondered about the German town of Dachau. This town is home to the first of Hitler’s infamous concentration camps of World War II.
I’ve wondered what life was like in Dachau when hundreds of thousands of people — Jews and Gypsies, the sick, the weak, the elderly, prisoners of war and more — were trafficked into those camps, tortured, and burned alive. Did the average citizen know about the gas chambers? Did they believe the same things as the Nazi party? Did they even feel strongly about Jews one way or the other?
Historians suggest that Germans living through the Third Reich had a spectrum of experiences.
What was done in the death camps, they report, was widely publicized by the government. So, many citizens would have at least been able to know about the Holocaust happening in their midst. And some did seem to know that something was up but did not necessarily know the details about the death camps.
Some Germans, radicalized by the Nazi propaganda machine, volunteered for the Gestapo. They snitched to the authorities: Hitler reportedly received as many as 1,000 letters a day from everyday citizens denouncing their Jewish neighbors.
Holocaust historian Daniel Goldhagian concludes, ‘’It took nearly the entire German population to carry out the Holocaust .’’
Yet we know that there were others — those who resisted the Third Reich, harboring and hiding Jews at great risk to themselves.
Some busied themselves enjoying the privileges of not being targeted by the secret police: dancing to American swing music, cracking jokes about Hitler, and listening to BBC broadcasts, all of which were forbidden.
Indeed, Eric Johnson, another Holocaust historian, writes:
“most Germans may not even have realized until very late in the war, if ever, that they were living in a vile dictatorship. This is not to say that they were unaware of the Holocaust...[however] a tacit bargain was struck between the regime and the citizenry. The government looked the other way when petty crimes were being committed. Ordinary Germans looked the other way when Jews were being rounded up and murdered; they abetted one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century not through active collaboration but through passivity, denial and indifference .”
Thinking on these things, I wonder, could the average German living through the Third Reich have protested “not all Germans!” simply because they had not pushed a Jew into an oven with their own two hands? Could they be “innocent” of the Holocaust happening among them? Can any people who refuse to resist such a society be?
There are only two Egyptians in the entire Exodus story who overtly think the Hebrews should be oppressed: the pharaohs. They are the ones who create negative stereotypes about the Hebrews. They devise oppressive schemes and systems to subjugate the ghetto children. They defy the Hebrews’ God by refusing to let those Israelites go.
The social ladder in ancient Egypt had many different spaces to occupy: royals, scribes, artisans and craftsmen, peasants and workers, and, of course, slaves. It would be a mistake to think every ancient Egyptian, no matter where they stood in that social hierarchy, was actively involved in oppressing the Hebrews. As did the Germans of the Third Reich, Egyptians in this story had a spectrum of experiences.
Some became taskmasters and overseers because they believed that the Hebrews were a barbarous threat to Egyptian society, as the pharaohs had said. Others, who may have had no strong feelings about Hebrews either way, likely became overseers because the positions were available and they needed the work. After all, new systems of oppression can create job opportunities for folks in the privileged group.
But there were also Egyptians who certainly didn’t participate in the most overt forms of Hebrew oppression. Most were not overseers or taskmasters. It’s unlikely that every artisan, craftsman, and scribe could afford to have slaves. Egyptian peasants obviously didn’t enslave anyone either. The vast majority of Egyptians played no part in the decrees and laws hurting the Hebrews.
None of those distinctions matter, however, when God judges Egypt in this story. All of the Egyptians sit in corporeal darkness for three days, because one king built a program to oppress the Hebrews, because that king’s subjects — the ancestors of the Egyptians in this Exodus chapter — bought into the rhetoric of fear and politics of oppression, and because each generation up to that time continued to support that oppressive system into the present moment.
Even the Egyptians who harbored no strong, overt hatred toward Hebrews also sat in that darkness. Even Egyptian peasants sat in that darkness. None of them could insist “Not all Egyptians!” and be excused.
We Too Were There
Many white Americans desperately want to differentiate themselves from the racists of the past and present. It’s unfair, many argue, that black Americans seem to be holding white Americans accountable for sins that they were not alive to commit.
“I’ve never said or done anything racist in my life!” they say
“I’ve never owned any slaves!”
“I’ve never lynched anybody!”
“You know, Andre, not all white people are afraid to talk about racism!”they insist
“Not all cops are bad!”
“Not all white people are racist!”
History shows — as does the scripture above — that one does not have to be pharaoh, or Hitler, or Donald Trump, in order to be a part of the oppression machine. There are many ways to participate. One of them is to do nothing in the face of evil. The “innocent” Egyptians in this story, who did nothing to resist the royal plan to dominate the Hebrews, had to sit in darkness with the same Egyptians who cracked the whip.
As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time:
“This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it . . . it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime .”
White Americans — especially Christians — can learn from this story to stop saying “Not all white people!” (#NotAllWhitePeople) in conversations about racial injustice. Instead, they should learn the phrase that many Jewish people say together when they recall the Exodus story at Passover.
During the Passover Seder, the story is told as though the people currently reading it had personally experienced the events. Together, they say “we too were there” as they recount the story.
“We were there in Egypt enslaved, we witnessed and were spared from the ten plagues, we sacrificed the Passover lamb, marked its blood on our doorposts, and we crossed the Red Sea on dry land .”
By observing Passover in that way, the Jewish tradition shows that the story of their ancestors is also their story.
The same stands true for the Egyptians in the Exodus story. Each person sat in darkness because of sins committed not just within their generation but also because by their ancestors; because the story of their ancestors was also their story.
Germany’s Holocaust museums, memorials, and social reforms echo the same spirit as that Passover chorus. They are making efforts to own that the story of their ancestors is also their story. They say “never again” to the evils of the previous generation.
Many black people carry the spirit of that Passover chorus in the way that we relate to that history. We too were there when the first Africans were herded onto slave ships. We too were there when our names were changed, our families split, our religions were shunned, and our history was erased. We too were there when we were forced to work those southern cotton plantations, under the constant threat of violence.
We were there during the church bombings and lynchings of the Jim Crow era. We too were there when the government criminalized our communities for its “War on Drugs.”
And we are still here, to witness the Sandra Blands, and Tamir Rices, and Terrence Crutchers of this nation continue to die at the hands of racially charged systems of social control. We carry this history in a deep and personal way. The story of our ancestors is our story.
White Americans would do well to learn to say “we too were there” when thinking of America’s history — and not just the parts that are easy to be proud of. Someone was steered the slaveships. Someone beat enslaved people. Someone raped enslaved women. Someone burned crosses, and bombed churches, and hung black people. The list goes on.
That history belongs to a people. It is not the entirety of their history, but it cannot be ignored. Their story does not have to continue in the direction in which their ancestors pointed. It can only be redirected, however, toward a beautiful end when those to whom it belongs take responsibility for it.
**edits have been made to this post: originally I had written about Auschwitz. Thank you, Gretchen for helping me choose a more appropriate city.
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- Anonymous. “We Were There.” First Fruits of Zion, First Fruits of Zion, 16 Apr. 2016, ffoz.org/discover/passover/we-were-there.html.
- Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage Books, 1962.
- Ezard, John. “Germans Knew of Holocaust Horror about Death Camps.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Feb. 2001, www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/17/johnezard.
- Gewen, Barry. “Hitler’s Silent Partners.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2000, www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/20/reviews/000220.20gewent.html.
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