This past fall I was able to spend some time in Europe, more specifically, a variety of places in “central” Europe, a part of the continent I have long known of but about which, as it turns out, I knew far less than I thought. I chose one place quite specifically – Krakow, Poland – as it serves as a common gateway for a visit to Auschwitz, that most notorious of camps amidst the most notorious event in all of human history, perhaps: the Holocaust.
I’m not sure where my interest in the Second World War originated but it might have had something to do with growing up with my Aunt Fran, someone who remembered the war with an odd mix of fondness and regret. She certainly remembered the pain and the sacrifice but she also held dear memories of friendships and of experiences that were deep and profound. I was fortunate to have a good history teacher or two along the way as well and that probably helped.
Regardless of the origin, by the time I was in junior high school I was an avid reader of texts dealing with WWII and, especially, with Hitler and the Nazis. As I grew older, I came to focus increasingly on the Holocaust, my chief motivation being my desire to understand how something so heinous could be undertaken by anyone. Various studies posited a long history of European anti-Semitism, economic factors, scapegoating, etc., but none of these, to my mind, addressed what was, for me, the central question: how could one human being do such a thing to another?
Auschwitz was the third concentration camp I have visited in my lifetime and my particular focus was Auschwitz-Birkenau, the much larger camp designed specifically for the express purpose of efficient extermination of human beings. Auschwitz is an hour’s drive outside Krakow through a typical rural landscape. The original camp has numerous displays which attempt to bring home the horror and the enormity of what the Nazis undertook. Rooms full of prosthetic limbs, eyeglasses, suitcases with names on them, human hair: each and every one defies comment.
As for enormity, the sheer expanse of the Birkenau site (and the familiar elements seen in so many movies: the rail platform, the entrance, etc) boggles the mind. A display which explains the mechanism of the crematoriums deepens the dismay. How could the human imagination conceive of such a thing?
And yet, for me, one of the most arresting experiences was a photograph of the unloading of prisoners from railcars. While hundreds are being corralled, in the middle foreground, two soldiers – seemingly content – are in conversation, one quite animated and the other standing with a cigarette in his hand. It is apparent that they are largely oblivious to what is happening around them. Are they discussing the weather? Domestic affairs? Gossiping about the commandant? They are distinctive amidst the scene because they appear so appallingly normal.
So I am no closer to really comprehending how anyone gets to the point the Nazis and their sympathizers did. While the scale is different, I struggle as well to understand how radicals in the modern world, most recently in France, can hold to the idea that murder and slaughter are justified as a matter of faith. In the broadest context, many will speak of the “inhuman” actions of the perpetrators.
Which brings me, finally, to the point of this blog. Beware the distancing we undertake when we look at the actions of Nazis, fanatics of any ilk, domestic terrorists, and others we accuse of committing inhuman acts. Their acts are, sadly, exclusively human. To the best of my knowledge, no other species on the planet has ever sought to systematically exterminate people or kill all those whose convictions – religious or otherwise – do not match their own. These are the things human beings do to one another. When it comes to mass murder and the destruction of the innocent, only human beings can lay claim. And, as I’m always arguing in this blog, that in no way discounts the human capacity for decency, self-sacrifice and love. Still, let’s not forget that where evil is concerned, there are no “others”. There is only us.