Sunday, September 6, 2015

Perpetrator and victim - visiting Auschwitz

Beyond the electric fences which kept the prisoners inside the camp, there is a pleasant looking, double story house. This was the house of Rudolf Hoess, who ran the camp. It is located within easy walking distance of the gas chambers and the ovens. From one of the windows on the top floor, you could see the roof of the gas chamber, if you were to look, on any day, at any hour.

It was here that Hoess raised his children. This is where his family slept and ate their breakfast. This is where he relaxed. This is where he made love to his wife, heard his children preparing for school. This is where he listened to the radio, read a book, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, where he slept and where he rose in the morning for work.

As it happens, it was also within sight of his house, that he was hanged for his crimes, on a simple wooden scaffold, erected with wooden pillars on either side, holding aloft a single piece of railway track. It was erected for him and it stands today, in his terrible memory.

But it is this extraordinary fact of placement that grips one, when one visits Auschwitz. That the crimes he was committing, he did within easy walking distance from his family life. Thousands upon thousands of people were being tortured, maimed, experimented upon, shot, gassed and murdered in many other ways. On a daily and routine basis. Children were wrenched from their fathers arms and led to their deaths. Mothers were forced to watch while their babies were murdered in front of their eyes and then were put to death themselves.

Families were ruthlessly split. The weak and less useful were disposed of as quickly as possible. It was not, in a macabre sense, a problem for the Nazis of how many people could be killed at any one time. Their ability for this was fairly limitless. But the numbers of deaths posed a logistical problem of the time it took to dispose of their bodies. The first solution was mass burial. This required considerable space and the right kind of soil. In Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz 2, and just down the road from Auschwitz 1) mass burial became unsustainable, because the soil was clay - and the bodies eventually would re-emerge , whenever it rained. So mass cremation replaced mass burial - and cremation placed an irritating limit on the amount of people who could be killed on any one day. Birkenau is, incidentally, some 30 times larger than Auschwitz 1. And when you walk on that ground, in some areas, it is the ashes of the dead that forms the dust on your shoes.

In one of the rooms in Auschwitz, there is a very large glass urn. It is filled with the ashes of what were once human beings. People with lives, and homes, and children, and hopes and dreams. There they lie now. All and everything that remains of them. Mixed together with others who shared their fate. A tragedy of innocence.

Innocence, because these people had done nothing other than live where they lived, worship where they worshipped, shop where they shopped, learn where they schooled. They had simply lived their lives. And this was what was deemed to be a crime worthy of the most indescribable punishment, suffering, death and utter and absolute dehumanisation and commodification.

One of our party found it most extraordinary that there was so much deception involved in the process: The Jews were told that they needed to bring a packed suitcase with them. (If they packed a suitcase, there must be a future!) They were told to bring a basin in which they would wash themselves. (If they had a basin and they could wash - surely it wouldn't be so bad!) They were told very explicitly, that Work means Freedom, on their arrival, as they walked into hell. (I'm strong. I can work. I will get my freedom!) They were told that they could bring with them fifty Deutschmark, to see them live in a little comfort after they arrived. (There must be, at least, the chance of a little more comfort! Why else would they suggest i bring money?)

Those who were so selected were told they would be able to shower. (If I shower, at least I will feel a little better!) The men should undress on the one side of a wall and the women on the other. It was a shower! It was so very welcome! They could not know that they would meet each other, naked, beyond that door. Their naked children would be with them. Their human dignity would be utterly destroyed, but they would be there, naked and alive, long enough to feel it all draining from their bodies. When the Zyclon B gas was pumped into the room, there was time enough for them, by far, to know what was happening to them - what had happened to them.

It took 10 minutes on a good day - but anything up to 30 minutes on a bad day - depending on weather conditions, after the gas was delivered into the chamber - for them all to die. There would be panic. There would be desperate and vain attempts to escape the horror. There would be prayers which were never answered. There would be people trampled beneath, in an orgy of despair and desperation.

When the chamber fell completely silent, as it always did, the bodies would be removed and processed. The bodies would be disinfected and the hair would be removed for recycling. Jewelry would be removed and collected, sorted, counted and dispatched. Clothes would be sorted and searched. Everything and anything useful or valuable would be sent back to Germany for sale or re-use. Nothing was discarded, unless it really was useless. Metal eyelets would be removed from the shoes of the victims - so detailed and so precise was the processing of the commodity.

Hitler needed an enemy. He needed an enemy to galvanize his party and his people. And when choosing an enemy, it would be wise to choose an enemy that is not too poor, which is why the Jews suited him so well. Because they were, effectively, the middle class of Poland. They could be trusted to bring with them their allocated fifty Deutschmark. They would have a suitcase. They would fill it with their belongings. They would, most likely, have gold filled teeth.

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, some time ago, about the banality of evil. Banal, because it is so easy. Banal because of the fact that it does not take anyone very extraordinary to be evil. You do not need any special talents. You do not need to be athletic, or gifted, or beautiful (or indeed, ugly!) You do not need to be bright, or stupid, or particular in any way. You can be all of these things, and none.

Some years ago, I encountered the Psychologist, Elaine Bing, who has spent most of her professional life working with perpetrators of violence. These people - usually men - are obviously not the most beloved of society. They have committed horrible crimes. More often than not way in excess of any order they might have received. More often than not, they are outwardly normal. They lead seemingly normal lives. You would not be able to identify them by the way they look or the way they live. To all intents and purposes, they are upstanding members of society. They will frequently attend church. They will, perhaps, love culture. They will appreciate art or a good novel. But below the surface, they are something very different.

They have no pity for their victims. They have no boundaries for any of their chilling behaviour. They have no remorse. They have no insight into any of the pain or any of the suffering and destruction they have caused.

I asked Elaine how she coped with dealing with them. How did she survive her encounters? How did she not feel contaminated and sullied? Her response was as powerful as it was shocking. She said "I think to myself, that could be me".

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