Monthly Archives: July 2014

The gas chambers: Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz

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Philip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979) is one of the most disturbing and valuable books about the Holocaust I’ve read. This testimony offers in gruesome detail an eyewitness account of what actually happened in the gas chambers: from the moment hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners arrived hungry, thirsty and terrified on cattle trains; to the separation of families and the selection process; to the brutal beatings and threats by SS officers; to the lies intended to induce prisoners to think that they were about to be “disinfected” in public showers rather than killed; to the sadistic torture of some; to the gassing of the terrified victims and the desecration and pillaging of corpses, and finally to their cremation by fellow prisoners condemned to the Sonderkommandos: prisoners like Filip Muller.

The members of Sonderkommando, composed almost entirely of Jewish inmates, were forced under threat of death to do the most disturbing work for the SS: dispose of the countless corpses of the victims killed in the gas chambers. They did not themselves commit the murders. That task was left to the SS soldiers, who often did their job zealously. Mass murder was daily business at Auschwitz, but it was also “top secret”.

Although information had leaked about the mass gassing of prisoners, the Nazis tried to cover up their massacres. They kept the members of the Sonderkommando isolated from other prisoners, to reduce the chances of reports about the mass gassing of prisoners with Zyklon B reaching other Auschwitz inmates and the outside world. Usually, after having removed and incinerated the bodies of the victims, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed in the gas chambers, so that there would be no prisoner eyewitnesses to the Nazi atrocities.

The author, Filip Muller, is one of the rare survivors among those condemned to work in the Sonderkommando. Born in 1922 in a small town (Sered) in Slovakia, Muller was only twenty years old when he was brought to Auschwitz in April 1942. After a short while, as punishment, he was assigned to dispose of the corpses of the victims. Many of them had wasted away to skin and bones in Auschwitz or in Polish ghettos; others had died of typhus and other diseases in the concentration camp; some had been brutally beaten and shot by the SS, others were hung to set an example for other prisoners, but by far most—hundreds of thousands of men, women, children and babies–were collectively massacred in the gas chambers. As Muller recalls, the sadism and brutality of the SS soldiers knew no bounds: “Shouting and wielding their truncheons, like beaters at a hunt, the remaining SS men chased the naked men, women and children into the large room inside the crematorium. All that was left in the yard were the pathetic heaps of clothing which we had to gather together to clear the yard for the second half of the transport” (33).

Although vicious and violent, the SS officers would sometimes pretend courtesy towards incoming Jewish inmates to persuade the victims to cooperate and expedite the extermination process. The Nazis adapted their behavior to the circumstances. In some cases, when the prisoners already knew they were doomed to death—as was the case with many of the groups arriving from nearby ghettos in Poland—the SS soldiers would beat them into submission in order to force them into the gas chambers. At other times, when prisoners arriving from far away locations falsely believed that they would live, the SS would set up an elaborate ruse to cultivate false hopes. They even went so far as to place hooks with numbers inside the gas chambers, to suggest that the prisoners would retrieve their clothes after the “showers” and be sent off elsewhere to work.

This was the case, for instance, with the “Family Camp”, made up of prisoners from Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. They were the only Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who were allowed to wear civilian clothes, whose hair was not shaved off and who, as the name of their group suggests, were not separated from their family members. The Family Camp was subject to less abuse not out of any Nazi kindness, of course, but to provide to the outside world a false model of what life in Auschwitz was like for Jewish inmates. Although Muller and other prisoners from the Sondercommando tried to warn some of the leaders of the Family Camp that they’d be soon exterminated and encouraged them to rebel, by the time the victims believed these dire warnings it was too late. In the end, every last man, woman and child from the group was gassed by the SS, many of them after having been beaten by soldiers or bitten by dogs to the point of disfiguration: “The people,” Muller recounts, “crowded together on one side of the room, were shaking with terror. Almost all of them were now sobbing: their weeping sounded like a heart-breaking dirge. Most of them were badly hurt from truncheon blows as well as from the sharp teeth of the dogs” (109).

Muller heard countless times the heart wrenching attempts of the doomed prisoners to escape, once the SS officers pushed them into the gas chambers, bolted shut the door and dropped in from above the canisters of poison gas: “The prelude to death was repeated with equal brutality and with the same ending. Finally there were about 600 desperate people crammed into the crematorium. A few SS men were leaving the building and the last one locked the entrance door from the outside. Before long the increasing sound of coughing, screaming and shouting for help could be heard from behind the door. I was unable to make out individual words, for the shouts were drowned by knocking and banging against the door, intermingled with sobbing and crying. Only now and then there was a moan, a rattle, or the sound of muffled knocking against the door. But soon even that ceased and in the sudden silence each of us felt the horror of this terrible mass death” (33-34).

The horrific spectacle of death, repeated several times a week, and at times several times a day—particularly during the deportation of almost 440,000 Jews from Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944–did not destroy Muller’s humanity. It only strengthened his resolve to survive the Nazi nightmare in order to provide testimony about this unprecedented genocide, which the Nazis tried to erase from history and which some so-called “revisionist historians” continue to deny today.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

 

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Would you forgive the Nazi perpetrator? The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness is a philosophical narrative by Simon Wiesenthal about moral responsibility for crimes against humanity that raises the possibility of forgiveness of genocide. In this parable, the narrator describes his hellish daily existence in the Lemberg concentration camp.  The story reflects, in some respects, Wiesenthal’s own experience in several Nazi concentration camps during WWII: including Janowska, Plaszow and Mauthausen. Although the narrative shies away from graphic descriptions of violence, it alludes to the sadistic mistreatment of Jewish inmates by SS officers as well as to the starvation, disease and constant threat of being shot or selected for the crematorium that were part and parcel of the daily horrors experienced by inmates. The book, originally published by Schocken Books in 1976, has been taught for decades in schools as an introduction to the Holocaust. Written in simple yet elegant prose, The Sunflower has been especially popular because it raises the important questions about moral responsibility for national crimes and explores the victims’ capacity for forgiveness. The latter point was particularly relevant to Wiesenthal, who spent years of his life tracking down Nazi fugitives and bringing them to trial for their crimes against humanity.

In a moment of rare beauty in his somber existence in the concentration camp, the narrator, a Jewish prisoner on his way to forced labor, sees a row of sunflowers planted on Christian soldiers’ graves. In a poetic scene, the narrator describes how he’s initially enthralled by the flowers’ beauty, only to be later struck by its implications: “I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave… It was gaily colored and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. … Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this was just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages” (The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, New York: Schocken Books, 1998, 14). As he overcomes his awe, he realizes that, as a Jewish prisoner, he’ll be deprived of dignity not only in life, but also in death. He’ll be shot and tossed into a mass grave or gassed and incinerated. For him, as for millions of other Jewish prisoners, “No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb” (15).

When the narrator arrives at work, where he’s charged with throwing away medical waste, a nurse signals him to follow her to a hospital bed. There the narrator sees a man enveloped in bandages, pale and rail thin. As this man addresses him with great difficulty, the narrator realizes that the dying man is a young German SS officer: a mortal enemy. Astonishingly enough, the officer begs for his forgiveness for what he’s done to other Jewish people. He doesn’t excuse his behavior, but he describes some of its causes. He tells him about the Nazi indoctrination when he was in Hitler Youth. He speaks of the manuscripts and speeches that depicted Jews as a “subhuman race” and called for their annihilation, which he later encountered in his training as an SS officer. He also speaks of being subjected to tremendous peer pressure from fellow soldiers as well yielding to the pressure of following orders from his superiors.

And yet, now that he’s about to die, he feels a sense of responsibility and guilt for his murderous acts against defenseless civilians. He confesses that he was part of an SS brigade that hunted Jews down, forced dozens of them—defenseless men, women and children–into a house, then tossed hand grenades into the windows to kill all of them. Some people jumped, while on fire, from the broken windows. Still haunted by this vivid memory, the SS soldier can’t expire in peace without some kind of atonement from a Jew: from a member of the group he and other soldiers victimized. The narrator is surprised by the request and paralyzed by indecision. He doesn’t know how to respond.

When he returns to the camp that evening, he tells his friends about this strange encounter. Adam, an architect, finds the SS soldier’s request preposterous—and trivial—given that the Nazis were murdering millions of Jews. One less Nazi, he states cynically. Josek, a deeply religious Jew, maintains that he’d have refused the pardon with a clear conscience. How could his friend have forgiven atrocities of such a magnitude? And who was he to speak for millions of other victims? Both friends remain suspicious: Why would the “Aryan Superman” need the forgiveness of an “inferior” Jew? The narrator, however, sees the dying SS soldier as a fellow human being. “The SS man’s attitude toward me was not that of an arrogant superman. Probably I hadn’t successfully conveyed all my feelings: a subhuman condemned to death at the bedside of an SS man condemned to death…” (67). Of course, their circumstances were far from symmetrical. In fact, they were diametrically opposed. Still unsure of his own ethical stance, the narrator asks each of us, readers, to ask ourselves: If faced with the Nazi soldier’s dying request for forgiveness, “What would I have done?” (98)

If we read the transcripts of the Nazi leaders put on trial, we see that the question of forgiveness doesn’t come up often for the perpetrators: at least not in the public trials. Adolf Eichmann or Rudolf Hoss, for instance, express no regret or compunction for their crimes. They deny all sense of personal responsibility and blame only the Nazi system and their superiors for their murderous deeds. Yet for the victims, the question is extremely relevant because it asks them to consider at least some of the perpetrators as human: as men capable of guilt and regret for their crimes.

Wiesenthal’s simple moral parable shows the Nazis as a diverse group who nevertheless behaved similarly. Not every SS soldier hated Jews. Not every SS soldier was a ruthless sadist. Not every SS soldier gladly followed orders to butcher innocent people. Yet almost every SS soldier chose, like the man in The Sunflower, to follow such orders, to commit such crimes. Almost every SS soldier killed countless innocent Jews. How could this happen? Understanding what forces were at play to make genocide possible doesn’t mean forgiving perpetrators or exonerating them of blame. But without a sociological, and historical, understanding of how tens of thousands of German citizens—some of whom were ordinary men, like the soldier in this story–were capable of such atrocities, we are likely to overlook the vulnerability of our own times.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Genocide in Rwanda: Me against my brother, by Scott Peterson

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Unfortunately, the question of whether humanity as a whole learned a valuable moral lesson from the Holocaust was dramatically answered in the negative during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Not only did history repeat itself, but so did world indifference to the misfortune of a million victims. In Me against my brother (New York: Routledge, 2000), journalist Scott Peterson vividly describes, based on personal observations and extensive research, the ethnic tension and the genocide in Rwanda. In the chapter “Genocide Denied” he also covers world reactions, including, unforgivably, France’s defense of the Hutu aggressors and the isolationist policies of the United States. He argues that these were important international factors that made the mass killings possible. Above all, the author persuades us that, unlike other ethnic tensions in Africa and the Middle East, the Rwandan genocide could have been averted by effective U.N. involvement: “In Rwanda Hutu extremists were often just young men with machetes or ill-disciplined soldiers” he states. (292) As the title of the book suggests, neighbors, former friends and even family members killed many of the victims in Rwanda using rudimentary weapons: most often machetes that had been previously employed for everyday household purposes and agriculture. Why then did the U.S. refuse to intervene?
Peterson points out that a few months after giving the inaugural lecture at the United States Holocaust Museum in April 1993 and expressing his commitment to fight the evil of genocide throughout the world—“But as we are its [evil’s] witness, so we must remain its adversary in the world in which we live”—President Clinton, having just pulled humiliated American troops from Somalia, urged the United Nations not to intervene in the ethnic conflict in Rwanda (289). Peterson elaborates: “Genocide must be organized to be effective, and in Rwanda that took time and left many traces. But Washington feared ‘another Somalia’, and so the first instinct was denial that genocide was even occurring—that would have legally required action to stop it. The second instinct was to disengage entirely, as the US sought to slash UN troop numbers. The third move—at least from the part of American policy-makers—was to bully any other nation from acting” (290). In hindsight, Bill Clinton would later declare that not interfering in the Rwandan genocide was the biggest regret of his presidency.
Between April and September 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda ruthlessly massacred almost 1 million men, women and children of the Tutsi minority. Tensions between the two ethnic groups rose during the early 1990’s over control of the country. The Hutu government of Rwanda, backed by Belgium and France, had more or less ruled the country since their revolution against the Tutsi elite in 1959. However, the Tutsi minority in exile, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under the leadership of Paul Kagame, was attempting to reaffirm power in Rwanda. The Hutu extremists, who called for a “final solution” to the “Tutsi problem”, gained political momentum during the 1990’s.
The Hutu Power movement galvanized the support of part of the army and of powerful politicians. The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana (1937-1994), the third president of the Republic of Rwanda, on April 6, 1994, only stocked the Hutu extremists’ hatred and their suspicion that the Tutsis were out to destroy them. They blamed the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front for the crime, using the assassination of the president as a pretext for mass murder. Transmitting their message mostly via radio stations, they urged vendetta against Tutsis as well as against moderate Hutus.
The result was atrocities that are almost beyond description. Nonetheless, Peterson attempts to give readers an impression of the sheer volume and violent nature of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. “In the next weeks, the death toll began to merge into a statistical mass. In this village one Tutsi survived from a population of 400; in that town some 2,800 were slaughtered; dozens of parish churches were turned into abattoirs. To fully appreciate the nature of Rwanda’s mass killing, however, requires extracting the terrific agony particular to each death. That is now an impossible task. But an extermination rate of 45,000 each day means little, unless you explore and taste the charnel house yourself” (263).
The Hutu Power movement reinforced one simple, hateful message: in the power struggle with the Tutsis, it’s us versus them. Either we kill them or they’ll kill us. We’ve seen over and over again throughout history how this “us versus them” mentality can lead to the dehumanization of members of another ethnic or religious group. This makes genocide not only possible, but also–in a dramatic inversion of ethical standards of right and wrong–a moral duty. Scott Peterson’s well-documented book, Me against my brother, shows the danger of this dualist mentality and, perhaps even more so, the danger of lack of intervention by the rest of the world when genocide occurs. Genocide, he points out, is not just a “humanitarian crisis”–as the international news conveyed the Rwandan disaster–any more than mass rape in Bosnia was a “gynecological crisis”. Genocide is a massive crime against humanity that reveals the moral breakdown of our civilizations in general: particularly when the world refuses to intervene and help the victims. As the UNAMIR commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, notes with great regret about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda: “The biggest crime of all is that we weren’t able to keep it from happening” (290).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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