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Facing Up to Reality of Holocaust



David Adams • Irish Times, 31 March 2007

Last year, I had the opportunity to speak at some length with two Jewish women who had survived the Holocaust.

For the purposes of this, I shall call them Hannah and Ruth. Actually, Ruth has no personal recollections of that time. She was born in 1945 in a filthy coal wagon that was being used to transport her mother and other Jews between concentration camps. It was only while growing up that Ruth gradually learned about the Holocaust and the full extent of what her mother had to witness and endure.

She learnt how, for the first few weeks of her life, she was kept hidden from the German authorities in Neuengamme concentration camp. When eventually rescued by the Allies, both she and her mother were barely alive.

Hannah, a much older woman, has first-hand memories aplenty. As a young girl, she was deported with her family from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they were separated and she was later transferred to Buchenwald as a slave worker. Like countless others, during her time in the camps she lived every day knowing that it could well be her last.

Almost all of Hannah's close relatives, including her mother and father, perished in the gas chambers at the hands of the Nazis. Both women were agreed - indeed, acutely aware - that it was only through sheer good luck that they managed to survive at all.

This and the small kindnesses of strangers - mostly German strangers. Hannah remembers the occasional piece of meat, a morsel of fruit or vegetable and sometimes even a sandwich, left without a word and at great risk to themselves by a sympathetic guard or factory worker.

Such scraps of food could mean the difference between a prisoner living or dying of starvation. There were instances when a blind eye was turned to an indiscretion that would certainly have spelt death if it had been brought to the attention of the camp authorities.

In the ordinary run of things, these seem like little more than tiny, inconsequential gestures.

However, when your life depends on a blind eye being turned or a scrap of food being left by someone who knows that, in helping you, they might well be gambling with their own life, such actions are of monumental significance.

Neither woman shied away from describing the atrocities committed against the Jews - and many other groups - or from acknowledging that most Germans who encountered the prisoners were, at best, unsympathetic.

Indeed, Hannah is adamant that with so many people being rounded up and removed from towns and villages and then transported by rail the length and breadth of Germany in open wagons, the broad mass of the German public must have at least suspected that something terrible was going on. When one considers, as well, that many of the camps were situated in close proximity to towns and that gossip must surely have spread far and wide through soldiers, camp workers and the like talking to their families and friends about what they were witnessing, it is hard to believe that most Germans remained unaware of precisely what was happening.

But,despite all of that, neither woman wanted to stereotype every last German of that time as being supportive of, or even acquiescent in, the Nazi atrocities.

Each pointed out that but for the courage and compassion of a tiny few who clung tenaciously to their humanity and refused to become part of the prevailing madness and brutality, it is highly unlikely that either would have survived.

Tellingly, Hannah's abiding maxim is, "Never generalise. And avoid like the plague those that do." In consciously remembering and drawing attention to those few vital kindnesses, both have ensured that they themselves do not fall victim to an understandable, but ultimately self-destroying, all-consuming hatred.

Their broader view is that if the circumstances could be created where such horrors were unleashed and allowed to run unchecked within a society as civilised and sophisticated as that of prewar Germany, then something similar could happen anywhere.

It is hard to disagree when one reflects that since the end of the second World War it has indeed happened repeatedly in other places, and is happening still. I, like everyone else, have heard the story of the Holocaust many times, have read the books and watched the films and newsreel footage. So, essentially there was nothing new in what Hannah or Ruth had to tell me. The profound difference this time was that I had no emotional escape route. This was no film or book, it was all too real. I was listening to and looking into the eyes of human beings who had actually experienced the reality of the Holocaust. Through regular occurrence and (perversely) blanket media coverage, we have become emotionally, as opposed to intellectually, detached to some degree from the stark reality of genocide: even industrial-scale genocide like the Holocaust.

Much easier to switch TV channels than connect emotionally with what is happening in places like Zimbabwe and Darfur: that is part of the reason why it keeps happening.




Reprinted with permission from the author.












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