“The Depths of Human Suffering” and Why We Can’t Forget

“…the depths of human depravity.” Do you know what this means? I can tell you I don’t. I can pull out my handy-dandy dictionary and tell you what depravity means. It means “moral wickedness,” according to my MacBook. But does that mean anything to you? I can’t understand what moral wickedness looks like. Certainly moral crookedness, maybe even moral corruption, but moral wickedness? No. I don’t really have a concept of that.

What about “the depths of human suffering?” I can tell you that whatever that it is, my icy trek across campus daily or that pain in my leg from my yoga class probably doesn’t hold a candle to it. I try to think of the worst things that have happened to me in life and multiply them by five billion, but I can’t imagine what the depths of human suffering would begin to look like. Can you?

My history professor says he teaches our history class because at a conference once, he looked up at a powerpoint, and a bullet point said simply “The Holocaust.” “How can you reduce that much human suffering to a powerpoint bullet?” he wondered.

I’ve taken two history classes here at Penn: one about WWII and one specifically about the rise of the Nazi regime to power and its atrocities. And I can tell you they are probably two of the most important classes I will take here at Penn, because until you have learned about World War II and the terrible things that occurred, you cannot even begin to understand the two phrases I mentioned above.

I am amazed at the ability humans have for committing acts of utter moral depravity. Japanese soldiers decapitated enemy soldiers who surrendered peacefully, and made sport of bayoneting those who marched during the Bataan Death March. American soldiers were reduced to the same state of moral depravity, slicing open the mouths of living Japanese men to extract their gold teeth, and collecting the ears of dead Japanese to send home to their wives.

Thousands of women, men, children, and elderly, were brutally raped, forced to commit sexual acts upon their own families, and burned to death, shot, or killed during the Rape of Nanking, and millions of Jews were forced to live under unimaginable conditions before facing death in extermination camps. These are just a couple of the most striking examples of brutality during World War II, and certainly all parties were guilty of it in some form or another.

These things, while gruesome and unpleasant, are so important to learn about. We need to know what the depths of human suffering and depravity look like, so that we can collectively make sure that they never happen again. It is easy to say that this couldn’t happen again, that this won’t happen again. But how can we know?

As I look down at my history notes for my midterm today (T-minus three hours away), I’m reminded that these are more than names, dates, and events. World War II was a time of true suffering, the likes of which I will never understand. But I can at least try to understand in some small way what occurred. The only way to guarantee the future is to learn from the past.

**I would like to note that while atrocities were committed by both Japanese and American soldiers, certainly not all soldiers did these things, and furthermore, there were many factors that played into these actions, which for brevity’s sake I will not discuss here. I would like to thank our WWII veterans for their service.

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9 thoughts on ““The Depths of Human Suffering” and Why We Can’t Forget

  1. Indeed, our everyday troubles are nothing compared to war crimes and chronic famine in many impoverished parts of the world. When I went to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem a few summers ago, I could not make it through the whole museum without nearly fainting from being overwhelmed.

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    • I can only imagine. I have been meaning to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. I have learned about the Holocaust but I can imagine how emotionally overwhelming it would be to see it in such vividness.

      -Taylor

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  2. You’re totally right when you say how important it is to learn about this stuff. I didn’t realize until this summer, but only a handful of states require public school teaching on the Holocaust — which is insane. The word “tragic” doesn’t capture what happened during the Holocaust, or even that war in general — and we’ve let it happen again to different extents since.

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  3. It is sad to say but I am constantly amazed at the horrible act of cruelty we as humans are capable of. True we are also capable of great courage and compassion but shamefully these are far fewer than those acts of barbarism.

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    • I would actually claim that there are more acts of courage and compassion than we realize. While the bad things tend to seem more pronounced than the good, I think that there are a lot of small moments of courage that are overlooked. Schindler helped thousands of Jews avoid the concentration camps. Hundreds of Americans risked their lives to help victims of the Rape of Nanking. So while there is so much cruelty in the world, there is certainly a fair share of good. I agree with you that the barbarism we are capable of often seems more widespread and is unbelievable.

      Thank you for reading!

      -Taylor

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      • You’re most likely right but I still find it hard to understand why or how people can do such horrible things. It is true that in times of great suffering there emerge stories of great compassion and courage but it is sad that it takes such extreme crimes to give rise to the hero’s within.

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