Sixty years ago the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. Behind the barbed wires, many of the survivors could not stand on their feet to greet the liberators. The average weight of an adult was 77 pounds. Emaciated, with hollow eyes, those breathing skeletons, covered with a thin layer of tensed skin, only experienced a shift in their nightmare, for the nightmare of their memories would last for the rest of their lives. More than one million people had been murdered in Auschwitz alone.
I visited Auschwitz in 1979, while Poland was still under Communist regime. Attending a conference on language learning in Wrocslaw, I had not realized Auschwitz was relatively close by, and besides, to me it was only a dreadful name once encountered in history lessons. A colleague mentioned he found a driver who would take him to the camp, and asked if I would join him.
After walking for two hours between and in the barracks, after gazing at pictures, at the massive heaps of colorless hair and shabby shoes, after reading testimonies of survivors, after standing in a gas chamber and observing the incineration machinery and the ovens, I sat down in a silent corner and cried uncontrollably. My colleague, who had lost family at Auschwitz, held my hand, himself in tears while biting on his handkerchief. That place epitomized the ultimate collapse of civilization.
On this day we must talk about Auschwitz. We have to remember and our children have to know. We must answer a scary question: Could I have been a Nazi? What could make me a potential Nazi even in this time?
Hitler’s anti-Semitism was already openly professed in Mein Kampf (1925). For him “Jew” was related to “international” and “cosmopolitan”, and thus betrayal of own race and country. In his blocked vision of the world there was no place for marginals. And marginals included foreign looking individuals, homosexuals, the mentally disturbed, the social outcasts. Purity was Arian.
When Hitler’s Nazi’s – national-socialists – gained power in 1933, steps were quickly taken to “purify” the country. The media became a powerful instrument to poison the minds. Glorification of the homeland, its leader, its flag, its accomplishments, its history. Jews were the source of all evil, rats, vermin. Anti-Semitic directives laid the one restriction after the other. Jews were excluded from various professions. No entry to theatres, museums, restaurants, public transportation. Shops were boycotted, then closed. Assault groups of the Sturmabteilung could freely terrorize, torture and next kill.
The government concentrated disturbing elements in camps, in theory to reeducate the prisoners to civility. Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and others. Those Konzentrationslager were filled, not only with Jews, but with all who were suspect of disloyalty or marginal behavior – communists, gypsies, beggars, homosexuals, transients, Jehovah witnesses. Maltreated, undernourished, debased, if not subjected to horrendous “medical” experiments, hundreds of thousands died.
With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the persecution moved to a larger scale. The two million Polish Jews were rounded up in overpopulated ghettos to let them slowly die of disease and deprivation. But the ghettos were hard to manage and the extinction of its population would take too long. Moreover the broadening of the front to the West and later to Russia expanded Hitler’s grip to millions of more Jews. Setting up more ghettos was a grimy and lengthy perspective.
A clean and fast solution was required. The ultimate solution to the Jewish question. The Endlosung. The industrial annihilation of a whole population. Through a strict bureaucratic system. No bloodstained executioners, but clean-cut military officials, helped by local policemen. Administrative identification of the Jews in all occupied countries. Rounding up of the weekly ratio’s. Trains with stock cars, crowded to the maximum, riding day and night from all corners of Europe to the annihilation camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka. Upon arrival, separation of men, women and children. Undress completely. Hair shaved. Golden teeth torn out. Selection: those strong and healthy enough marched off to barracks. The others, the majority, nearly all women and children, ordered to enter the “shower rooms”, group after group. Standing naked, tightly packed. Doors closed. Cyanide gas Zyklon-B. Out of the heap the corpses were drawn by assigned camp prisoners, fellow Jews. Cadavers put on metal conveyors sliding into the burning ovens. Thousands and thousands of times again and again. More than one million in Auschwitz alone.
Elie Wiesel was 16 years old when he arrived there in 1944. He would become a survivor and devote his life to the memory of the Holocaust. His book Night contains this renowned passage:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Could I have been a Nazi?
When one looks at the pictures of emerging Nazism in the 1930s, and views the documentary films of that period, it strikes how easily hundreds of thousands were caught up by the momentum that restored Germany’s national pride. Marches, flags, parades, patriotism. None of these cheering people could imagine how it would end a decade later.
In an Auschwitz commemoration in Berlin yesterday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded his audience that the Holocaust could not be reduced to Hitler: ”The evil of Nazi ideology did not come from a void. The brutalization of thought and the demise of moral inhibitions had a history. People wanted the Nazi ideology. It was man-made.”
Had I been born thirty years earlier, and in Germany, would I have cheered with the crowd as Hitler drove by? No doubt. Would I have believed the skilful propaganda? As a young, inexperienced lad, most probably. I would have been a member of the Hitlerjugend. Remembering how I was as a boy, I would have been an idealistic believer, desirous to please, desirous to be rewarded, desirous to command others.
But to what point would coincidence and circumstances have led me further? Because most of us, if not all, carry the Beast in us, somewhere. Thousands of years of civilization have not been able to eradicate the gene that can make people turn vicious. Remember the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia… The civil wars in Angola, Congo, Chechenia… The bloody purgings in Chili, Irak, Afghanistan… The atrocities related to thousands of child soldiers. Remember, large or small in scope, but each as terrifying, Mogadishu, Columbine, Sarajevo, Freetown, Beslan…
Look at today. Physical and emotional abuse by partners or parents, violence in classrooms, terrorists killing the innocent, gangs murdering in Darfur, soldiers debasing naked prisoners. Read Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.
Or the Beast in embryo: the driver whirling in a fit of rage, the fuming sports fan yelling obscenities at the referee, the exasperated mother shaking her baby, the one child relentlessly bullying another. Or simply dare to assess the responsive pleasure of so many who watch beatings, killings and destruction in movies or act them out in computer games.
In his play Bash, Neil LaBute shows, with masterful and frightening accuracy, how good boys, our own, can be led to beat up a gay man in a filthy men’s room in Central Park, in spite of his pleading for mercy. Nothing is shown on the stage, only told in gripping details by one of the perpetrators himself – “kicking him long after he’s blacked out… we feasted om him like carrion and left nothing but bones”. This is how Nazi’s acted – most of whom had also grown up in normal and caring families. Are we able to appreciate those mirrors and warnings for our time and age?
Are these contemporary examples far from the industrial annihilation of the Holocaust? Not so. They continue to show what the individual is capable of when the Beast is unleashed. And that is why we must talk about it.