Monday, April 24, 2017

Volume 12, Number 1: Holocaust Memorial Day

At some point in the mid- to late-1980s, my father gave me a small paperback book.  It was Victory--the fourth (and final) volume in The Eyewitness History of World War II, by Abraham Rothberg, which Bantam Books had originally published in the 1960s.  A little over halfway through this volume is a passage about the Shoah* that resonated with me the first time I read it, and it still does today.  I'd like to share it with you now, especially given the incredibly ignorant comments that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made less than two weeks ago.

On April 14, 1945, Allied troops advancing into Germany saw firsthand the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  Among those soldiers was R.W. Thompson, a captain in the British Army who would later become the war correspondent for the London Sunday Times.  The following are excerpts from what he wrote:
The blue smoke of many fires hangs thickly in the pine woods along the road from Winsen to Belsen.  In the clearings the young corn is green and all the loveliness of spring, of budding life, is in the air, and the smouldering grasses of the pine woods bring a wonderful tang to the nostrils so that you expand your chest and feel your youth still in you, and are glad to be alive.  Then suddenly a new tang creeps into the odours of burning.  It is the stench of death.  It is the stench from the great charnel-house our armies have overrun so that all mankind shall now--and this time neither to balk nor forget--the appalling crime Hitler and the Nazis have done against humanity, against the very basis of life and faith itself. ... 
I began the unforgettable walk that you must read about.  At first it was little worse than a kind of enormous hutted camp with here and there the wooden towers where the guards had watched.  The whole enormous area hidden in lovely pine woods divided into barbed-wire enclosures containing about thirty long huts to house, on military standards, less than fifty men.  Here the inmates, men, women and children, were new, but recently brought in.  For the first time for days there was water, and for the first time for weeks these people were washing themselves and their clothes.  The only odd thing was that here and there men and women were excreting--just casually anywhere. There is no sanitation in this hell in the woods. 
And now before my eyes was the slow destruction of human beings, stripped of all human dignity, forced down to the level of the beasts, and so to die in utter ruin.  This thing, this hell far beyond the dreams of Dante, holds some 60,000 souls--souls!  These are not souls, these tragic travesties of humanity that sit and rot in their own excrement, these things that were human once, reduced now to skeleton death by slow deliberate starvation, but first stripped of all remnants of human dignity so that in truth they are dead before they die.  By the barbed wire lie the dead, some bits of clothing, others naked men, women and children, almost unrecognizable as the remains of human kind, though they died but an hour since. ... 
They lie down and they die.  Now deep into the camp the dead lie in bundles, neat bundles, grotesque limbs in terrible positions.  Here is a small cart loaded with a dozen corpses, the faces like parchment tight against the skulls.  They are only just dead.  A brown stocking is limply around a leg that a small black garter less than 4 centimeters in diameter cannot clasp.  A shock of auburn hair crowns the dead face of this woman that stares sightless to the blue sky.  The normal world of life is receding.  Horror is not yet too deep for an individual to mean something.  This woman had a life, a purpose, was beloved of someone.  But now the dead are in hundreds, the dead, the living and the near-living.  The dead in small bundles of threes or fours under the shadow of the pines, the dying in attitudes of sleep by the roadside, some dying peacefully, some suddenly sitting up chattering.  Here a woman sits with eyes round in deep sockets, and a younger woman tries to quiet her babbling.  She is babbling like a grotesque travesty of a child.  If you did not know, she might be asking for a toy to play with, but she is asking for death. ... 
And so slowly the Chaplain takes me to the great burial ground where our soldiers are scooping pits with bulldozers to accommodate all this dead and putrefying human wreckage, deliberately, slowly, brought to pass by Adolf Hitler and the so-called Aryan** race.  Morning and night the heavy truck with its trailers brings its cargoes of bodies to the great pits.  Stand with me at this brink of this death pit.  It is my job, your job, the world's job.  It is about 30 feet deep, but you cannot see how deep because it is nearly filled now with human bodies, littered together in the embrace of death.  Here are girls, boys, men, women, naked, half-naked, upside down, sideways, all ways, some staring up to the sky, others with their heads buried in human remains.  So stare in silence and let this crime beyond expression sink in.  Across the sandy clearing is the incinerator, but it ran out of petrol.  A rough record by the chief burner of bodies records seventeen thousand burned last month.  They say each body was roughly clubbed as it went in, for there is so little difference between the dead and the near-dead.  There is no differences in the faces even. ... 
I found it difficult to speak to Germans at all.  I used to walk through crowds of them--civilians or prisoners--as though they weren't there, yet feeling a kind of flaming wall around me. ... 
I am now a complete idealist.  I have given up all the "isms."  I believe in the human spirit above all things, and that only by a change of heart can civilization be saved.  For although it is the Germans who have done this thing, it is not only the Germans who can do it.  Prisoners of Germans did it to other prisoners.  Mankind can do this thing to mankind.
We must pass what we learned about the Shoah down from one generation to the next because every new generation, each being more distanced by time from the terrible events by time than the one before it, is more susceptible to being lied to.  In particular, a man named Bradley R. Smith thought that my generation, a generation for which the vast majority of their parents were born well after the Second World War ended, would be vulnerable to lies (for example, he claimed that Allied bombings of railroads were to blame for the starvation of the prisoners).  Smith published his lies in a number of student newspapers in 1991, including a full-page ad in The Michigan Daily.
"I was taught that humans, all things being equal, would be humane to one another.  I didn't hear about the Shoah until I came to the United States.  And when I did, I was rocked to my roots, because it seemed to deny everything I thought I had known about us humans!"
Prof. Ralph Williams, 9/21/2016
*I used to refer to this event as the Holocaust, mainly because it was the most widely-used term growing up; however, as Prof. Williams pointed out last year, that term is also used in the Bible to describe burnt offerings.  He added that the person who first used that term regarding the persecution and murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis later regretted doing so.

**The original wording from Mr. Thompson was "Adolf Hitler and the German race."  I changed "German" to "so-called Aryan" because, while Germany as a country was the primary guilty party, not all Germans willingly participated in the Shoah; to the contrary, a number of German-born people resisted in any way they could, with the price often being their lives.

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