Some pro-life campaigners regularly compare the impact of abortion to the Holocaust. But is this a justifiable choice of simile or a deliberate distortion for other reasons? David Kernek offers a personal perspective.
My first meeting — in the generally accepted meaning of the word — with my mother was 45 or so years after I was born. As we got to know each other, I learnt about her childhood and teenage years in Austria. There was her first love affair.
It was with Siegfried, a handsome Hitler Youth kid, cutting a dash with his blond locks, brown shirt and shiny black leather boots around town, the same town — as happenstance would have it — in which Adolf Hitler had spent his early years, worrying about his mother dying of cancer and saving up for the cheapest tickets for his favourite Wagners at the Linz Opera House.
Later, there was her journey to London as a 19-year-old early in 1939 as a refugee, having been labelled Jewish as defined by the 1935 Nuremberg race law. She had three Jewish grandparents.
I was told that not only was I the son of a Holocaust survivor, but also one who had survived an unsuccessful do-it-yourself abortion attempt.
I figure this permits me to join in the discussion by theologians and others in Ireland’s Eighth Amendment debate who are asserting or rejecting the notion that there’s an equivalence between, on the one hand, the murder of Jews — and gypsies, homosexuals, disabled children — and, on the other, abortion.
There can be no doubt that both acts — or, if you will, crimes — took place, and that the identities of the perpetrators are known. We all know who envisaged, planned and with accomplices executed the Holocaust, and I know — because she told me — that my mother had a go at an abortion. I don’t know why it failed; that was a question I left unasked. Perhaps she just didn’t know how to do it properly.
In both cases, too, choices were made. Neither were accidents, so we’re not talking about manslaughter. Miss — to use that antique title — Kernek chose abortion, while the Holocaust was not simply the unintended consequence of a government programme of discrimination and persecution that had somehow got out of control and been taken over by a horde of psychotic gangsters.
There’s no shortage of excellent histories of the Third Reich. One of the very best is Mark Roseman’s relatively short The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting, a clinical account of a 90-minute business-like gathering at a small mansion in a Berlin suburb on January 20, 1942, of 15 senior government bureaucrats, SS and party officials summoned by the then head of the security police, Reinhard Heydrich.
He was to die in Prague a few months later, critically wounded in an ambush by British-trained Czech and Slovak soldiers.
Minutes of the meeting, also attended by Adolf Eichmann, the principal administrator of history’s best-recorded genocide, were taken and stored. Found in the smoking ruins of Berlin, they became known as the Wannsee Protocol.
The purpose of the meeting was not to inaugurate the start of the Holocaust, since everybody sitting around the table knew it was already underway to a greater or lesser extent across occupied Europe, but to impress on the people running the civilian ministries — especially those in charge of the railways — the need to get on with it in the more organised and co-ordinated fashion required by the SS.
Section Three of the minutes states that instead “of emigration, the new solution has emerged, after prior approval by the Fuhrer, of evacuating Jews to the east … Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved in the Final Solution of the European Jewish question, distributed as follows among individual countries”.
Noting that “the number of Jews given here for foreign countries includes, however, only those Jews who still adhere to the Jewish faith, since some countries still do not have a definition of the term ‘Jew’ according to racial principles”, what follows is a country-by-country Jew count: from west to east:, Ireland 4,000, England [sic] 330,000, Estonia-Free of Jews, Greece 69,600, and so on.
The meeting went on with a summary by Heydrich of differing prevailing conditions in occupied, allied and neutral countries — there would be opposition in some, none in others — and a run-down on the prescribed fates of people classified as other than 100% Jewish. These ranged from one-eighth Jews, one-quarter, three-eighths, half Jews or mischlings, and three-quarters.
There was also the complicated but not insoluble question of people in mixed marriages, and the off-spring thereof.
The meeting concluded with Heydrich asking “participants to provide him with the necessary co-operation and assistance in carrying out his tasks”, after which, Eichmann recalled during his trial in Jerusalem, cognac was served. Hitler’s Third Reich pioneered the development of what we now know as corporate-speak; language designed to conceal its meaning.
Eichmann called it office speak. None of those attending were in any doubt that “evacuation to the east” was office speak for mass murder.
What then, of a pregnant woman whose choice is abortion, some of the reasons for which might be that her health is at risk, or that the pregnancy is the consequence of rape or incest, or that she is too young or poor to be a mother, or that she would be unable to look after another child?
And for some — though they would be reluctant to own up — there’s the sheer inconvenience in a busy social life or a promising career.
Greta Kernek got out of Austria in the nick of time, but she wasn’t problem-free. By the war’s end, she was a young mother — and a penniless, stateless “enemy alien” — living with a toddler in the home of a man by whom she was employed as a housekeeper. One thing, as it were, led to another with the employer, and she was pregnant again. He told her he didn’t want another child — his child — in the house and, let’s have the truth, the last thing she wanted was another child.
“I was,” she told me, “very tired, I didn’t have anything resembling a maternal instinct, and he could have kicked me out.” So her first choice was abortion followed, after it failed, by adoption.
As I’m not a theologian, and — and unlike many Austrians — not much of a philosopher, I steer well clear of both the religious and scientific arguments around the significance or otherwise of an unborn child, however many weeks he or she might be from conception.
Some Jewish thinkers say that people who liken abortion with the Nazis are uncomfortably close to softcore Holocaust deniers, a proposition I think is pointlessly offensive to those whose religious beliefs — be they of the Roman Catholic or Protestant varieties — about the status of life in the womb are held and voiced honestly.
What I am clear about in my own mind is that there is not the slightest scintilla of equivalence between the hard, personal choice my mother made and premeditated and industrially organised genocide.
Editor’s footnote: The ‘Irish Examiner’ does not publish letters which compare the Holocaust to abortion. They are either edited, returned to the contributor for rewriting, or rejected.