On this very day, 80 years ago, the Nazi armies invaded Poland, and launched World War II. I was five years old.
Within a year, we and 400,000 other Jews in Warsaw and surrounding areas were forced to move into the Jewish section of Warsaw. The area was then walled off and became the Warsaw Ghetto, one of Hitler’s infamous concentration camps.
Crowding and food shortages were unbearable, leading to a Typhus epidemic that took nearly 100,000 lives. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis launched a campaign to murder all European Jews. In the Ghetto, they packed some 300,000 people into cattle cars for a grueling trip to the newly constructed death camp of Treblinka.
Similar scenes were taking place throughout Eastern Europe, leading eventually to what today we refer to as the Holocaust – the murder of an estimated six million people just for being Jewish. They left behind only piles of hair, eyeglasses, gold rings, and charred bones, silent testimonials to the sentient beings who were no more.
I and my mom were among the few to escape the Ghetto and remain in hiding on the outside, until liberation three years later. No one else in our large family survived.
Once my survival was no longer a daily challenge, grief, guilt, and a quest for meaning set in.
The questions I kept asking were:
- Why was I spared when so many good people perished?
- How can I repay the debt for my survival?
- What is the lesson that we can learn from my people’s supreme sacrifice?
In 1972, I was hired by a major environmental consulting firm. My first assignment was to conduct a wastewater inventory of a Midwestern slaughterhouse.
As I was inspecting the waste storage area, I suddenly came across piles of hooves, and hearts, and heads, and discarded bodies, all bearing silent testimony to the sentient beings who were no more…
Instantly, images of death camp piles of human body parts flooded my mind. I tried to dismiss it as mere coincidence. “They’re only animals,” I kept repeating. But, it didn’t work. As a scientist, I wondered whether additional research would help. It didn’t.
As I became more familiar with animal farming and slaughtering operations, I noted other striking similarities between what the Nazis did to us and what we were doing to animals:
- the branding or tattooing of serial numbers to identify the victims
- the use of cattle cars to transport victims to their deaths
- the crowding and housing of victims in wood crates
- the arbitrary designation of life and death: Christian lives, Jew dies; dog lives, pig dies
- the villification and abuse of the victims to make killing more acceptable
- the callous, disrespectful dumping of victims bodies in open pits
- the deception about the horrors behind death camp and slaughterhouse walls.
My head was spinning, and my world was turning upside down. If our treatment of animals bears any similarities to what the Nazis did to us, how could my enlightened American society sanction this? Did anyone else see what I was seeing? Was I losing touch with reality? Did I need professional help?
But, then, I saw a quote by Jewish Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer. He wrote: “To the animals, all people are Nazis; to the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka.” At last, someone else shared my perception of reality. I was not losing my mind.
This is also when I realized that there may have been a valid reason for my survival, a valid way to repay my debt to society, and a lesson to be learned from the tragedy of the Holocaust. This is when I resolved to devote the rest of my life to fighting oppression, starting with our society’s oppression of animals raised for food.
Well-meaning folks have challenged my decision. They understand why a Holocaust survivor would oppose oppression, but why animals? Why animals, when so many human problems remain unresolved?
Why animals? Because animal oppression is the key to all oppression. Animals are the most defenseless, most vulnerable, and therefore, the most oppressed sentient beings on earth. Theologians have long debated whether there is life after death. But animals raised for food may not have a life before death.
Why animals? Because oppressing animals is the gateway to oppressing humans.When we tell a child that the family dog on his couch is to be loved and cherished, but the pig on his plate is to be tortured, slaughtered, dismembered, and consumed as food, we are giving that child his very first social permission to oppress others. It’s the same type of social permission that Nazi children received that the Christian can live, but the Jew must die.
Why animals? Because they are an integral part of our fondest childhood memories. Toy animals were the very first objects we handled. Our favorite fairy tales revolved around animal lives. Our family dog gave us unconditional love, when our schoolmates or even our siblings would not. It was only the greed and callousness of the meat and dairy industries that turned our favorite living beings into a commodity to be exploited and oppressed.
Why animals? Because they share our own feelings of joy, affection, sadness, and grief. Because they can suffer, just as you and I do. Many of us have experienced this first-hand with a four-legged member of our own family.
Finally, why animals? Because we can. Because, each year, every one of us has the awesome power to spare 100 land and aquatic sentient beings just by choosing a diet that also happens to be better for our personal health and for the health of our planet. Sadly, we don’t have that kind of power to save human victims of oppression.
The Holocaust has demostrated the tragic consequences of unchecked oppression. When we drop animals from our menu, we take our very first step in fighting oppression.