IN YAD VASHAM, Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum, a glass case displays a contract to build a crematorium. It is an ordinary business contract, one written between the German government and a company staffed by men and women who may well not even have known the nature of their product. The corporation creating the device simply served the nation and made a profit. At no point were the choices made by those working on it considered exceptional.

In this context, what does it mean for Seattle's Catholic archbishop to call a nearby Trident submarine base "The Auschwitz of Puget Sound"? For resisters blocking trains carrying thermonuclear warheads to compare them to box cars taking Jews to the ovens? Or for former Nuremburg prosecutor Mary Kauffman to defend the resisters by linking responsibility to challenge the Nazi "crimes against humanity" and that of American citizens in a nuclear age?

There's an image from the recent film "Sophie's Choice" which is useful in comparing our present time with that still incomprehensible other. Sophie is a Polish Christian taken to a concentration camp with her two children. She pleads for their lives, telling an officer, "They are so beautiful. They look like Aryans, not like those Jews, the others." The officer tells her to choose which child will live and which will die.

Because Sophie's choice is an impossible one, she refuses, pleading and begging; then when the man begins to seize both, cries "No! Take my baby! Take my little girl!" Offering a choice only between different deaths, her situation embodies a far point of barbarism, terror and powerlessness. It serves as a model for circumstances where human actions and human responses no longer matter. It is a choice whose very making precludes hope.

America is different, of course, in that those who build cruise missiles, wait in Minuteman silos, or serve on Trident subs, believe they are averting a holocaust, not creating one. The weapons are necessary precisely because we fear death camp terror or equivalent barbarism.

But the present threat of a world of death also parallels in many ways the Auschwitz horror. To begin with, both situations strain any framework of rational understanding. As psychologist Robert Jay Lifton points out, they destroy not only human lives, but the contexts which give those lives their meaning.

It is because the Third Reich collapses rational understandings of history that we tend to view it as a convenant not of individuals but of demons; resurrect it again and again through movies, spy novels and "secret diaries"; vest it with an aura not only of blood but of eros.

Similarly, we never fully believe that the continuity of human existence could be jeopardized by weapons we build, so we trust a Divine Providence (or omnipotent engineering) to assure they never will be launched. And we forget equally unthinkable cataclysms did in fact occur.

The camps, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in "Eichmann In Jerusalem," were the product of a particular type of barbarism -- an evil not of mad possession but of banality. Different from ordinary murder, or even from the sacking and leveling of a medieval city, the camps could exist only in a complex technological society. Bureaucratically insulated and geographically distanced from the view of most German citizens, they required the participation not only of the direct executioners but of normal individuals simply going about their business.

This is not to say our society is comparable to Hitler's Germany, but merely to point out that the consequences of our actions may be as terrible. The savagery of the German officer, who took Sophie's children and created a situation where real choice no longer existed, was made possible in large part by the actions of ordinary people of perfectly good will -- people living in a time whose difficulties they believed would ultimately pass.

Some Germans knew what they were doing and defended it, in Goering's words, as steeling themselves for a necessary task. But most did not. And their lives proceeded, at least until the Allied saturation bombings, not so differently from the way they always had.

We see this in the prison letters of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister executed for his part in the plot to kill Hitler. We find not only a struggle for spirit and connection strong enough to sustain resistance through a time of ultimate peril, but also a mundane account of weddings and births, Bach cantatas and popular novels. In Bonhoeffer's case, daily life was (even viewed from prison) a source of strength to combat barbarism. But we realize that for many citizens this routine world was all that existed.

If we mask the most urgent questions through immersion in the very routines the atomic weapons so fundamentally threaten, are our numbing mechanisms similar? Do we adapt to crisis by seeking private refuge, trusting that things will somehow work out? Or must we learn that because of human choices the unthinkable did in fact occur, and can again? And that, now as then, our actions could decide the outcome.

Sophie encounters another choice preceding the one in the death camp. It is one where Resistance workers ask her to translate some German documents, and she refuses. She has her family, she explains, responsibilities she can't evade. She fears the Gestapo will find out. Her response is reasonable -- certainly understandable. Yet she has abdicated choice when it still exists. And it is a similar, more general, abdication which ultimately dooms her children.

If the gravity of the atomic threat in any way parallels that of this previous horror, we are faced -- both as individuals and as a society -- with some difficult implications. And decisions which, while troubling even to think about, may well lead to a more humane world. Those like the "Trident Nein," who poured blood down the hatches of the USS Florida, are saying we must either challenge the potential disaster or succumb to it. Because there may well be no second chances, and the threatening horror might, therefore, be neither revocable nor redeemable, our present situation is in some respects even more urgent. Again, as in another time, the choices regarding how to respond rest on each of us.