“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”- George Santayana
It is seventy five years since the fall of Berlin in the hands of the Soviet Red Army following its Vistula – Order Offensive. With it the European Theatre of the World War II came to an end. The War that started with a Peace Agreement (The Munich Agreement) cost around 50 million lives, 30 million people were displaced. It was May 7, 1945, Thursday. Nazi Germany surrendered at 2:41 a.m. The World War II in Europe had ended with that famous statement “Brad,” Eisenhower said. “It’s all over.” But for those who survived this carnage, life was never ‘like before’- trauma haunted them throughout their lives.
The Vistula – Order Offensive also liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where they found about 7,000 desperately ill and emaciated prisoners along with 600 corpses, simultaneously with 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 items of women’s clothing and 7.7 tonnes of human hair. Auschwitz is the most brutal face of the Holocaust that lasted for 5 long years. Jewish population of Europe during 1930’s numbered around nine million. Poland was at that time home to the world’s largest Jewish community. By the time World War II ended in 1945, six million European Jews had been systematically executed. 90 % of the Jews in Poland were exterminated many of whom were reduced to ashes in facilities built by the Third Reich. The Nazis referred to the murder of Jews as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question (Endlösung der Judenfrage). Large numbers of Gypsies, homosexuals, ‘disabled’ were persecuted. The ‘disabled’ were perhaps the first to be targeted under the Nazi government instituted “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” As one of the first steps taken by the Nazis toward their goal of creating an Aryan “master race,” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, such as mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism. Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against people with disabilities, regularly labelling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society, Adolf Hitler secretly authorized a medically administered program of “mercy death” code-named “Operation T4,” . This methodology served as the precursor to the streamlined extermination methods of the “Final Solution” that executed innumerable innocents. Even after contemplating on so many facts, the Holocaust ceaselessly raises many perplexing questions:
Why did so many Europeans cooperate with Hitler’s programme of Jewish persecution (actively or passively), and why did relatively fewer resist? Why during the Nuremberg Trials did many of the Nazi officials claim they were simply following orders? Why do we see in photos taken between May and December 1944 officers and guards of the Auschwitz relaxing and enjoying themselves — as countless people were being murdered and cremated at the nearby death camp? In some of the photos, SS officers can be seen even singing and decorating Christmas trees. Was Holocaust an anomaly of history, or merely the worst manifestation of a hatred that simmered for many years and then boiled over? How it was possible for a society as highly educated and cultured as that of 1930 Germany to spawn such an evil?
Researchers for decades tried to find out the possible answers in Nazi ideology that is composed of Anti-Semitic/ and pseudo-scientific ideas grafted together. It is a lethal cocktail of Christian anti – Judaism, developments in philology , anthropology , Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism that preached “ Strong must rule and weak must submit “, genetics, eugenics and modern anti-Semitism which was regarded as scientific. Yet so many queries remain unanswered though extremely significant.
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There perhaps lies the greatest significance of ‘Auschwitz’ for the generations to come, once the last holocaust survivor dies will we remember what these extermination camps stood for? And is there anything for us to learn?
The main gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp with Arbeit Macht Frei ( work sets you free) sign.
At the social level, Auschwitz teaches us that silence is dangerous; there are momentous consequences of indifference when that ‘other’ is identified to be made as second class citizens. It starts with the segregation ‘us vs. them‘, it starts with hate-speech, intolerance and it starts when we stop caring for each other. Perhaps this mindset existed in the then Germany and in the other parts of Europe, that made Hitler the mouthpiece of the collective unconscious of the people ; the Führer kind of became the embodiment of dark desire of the mob that was chasing and killing a Jewish woman during the Lviv pogrom in 1941. Hitler did not turn every person into a Nazi, it was a collaboration between him and the unconscious fantasy of those people. We must therefore be ready to fight all types of prejudices no matter how peripheral they may seem as well as educating people about its vices and showing them the way to speak truth to the power.
At the political level, there is a great danger from state-sanctioned incitement to Hatred and Genocide , one of the most gruesome example of which was orchestrated by the Third Reich. It was a political culture that sustained Hatred, mass atrocity and environment of impunity. These political manoeuvres can easily be deciphered through the statement made by the German Reich-marshal Herman Goering during the Nuremberg trials “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” Now the challenge lies in finding the way to tackle such a juggernaut, the challenge is not to give ourselves to these unnatural men, these machine men with machine minds and their evil designs. These men are like Lernaean Hydra always spitting venom to lure innocent civilians to use them as cannon fodders for fulfilling their egotistical goals.
Even at the Individual level, there is much to learn from ‘Auschwitz’ ; the many things that we take for granted – freedom to walk, to talk, to read, even to be called by our own names i.e our identity, was in totality snatched away from those people , the people who were kept in the concentration camps they were stripped of everything from their hair to their personal belongings and were forced to forget who they were!! Death is not always a gas-chamber; death is also losing the self. Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel writes in ‘Night’ when his family arrives at the concentration camp, the SS guarads said -“Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. …. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever….” What makes one so indifferent to the plight of another!! Do words matter? Of course they do, if we choose to acknowledge what the famous Orchestra Director Benjamin Zander once shared about the thing he learnt from a Holocaust survivor. That Lady said to Zander that she was only 15 and her only brother was only 8 when they boarded the train to Auschwitz after losing both their parents. While getting down from the train she noticed her brother had lost one of his shoes, so she yelled at him “How can you be so stupid, can’t you keep your things together ? “ . That was the last thing she ever said to her brother because she never saw him again. After surviving the death camp she took a vow “I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I will ever say.” People do change when they keep their minds open and are willing to learn, that is also the reason why we can never stereotype people, many of whom who saved Jews from the hands of the Nazis, risking their own lives do not fit into the description of a guardian angel. We believe we know how goodness looks like- like our very own Mahatma- skinny and dressed in handmade loin cloth or like Mother Teresa ; goodness cannot drink, womanize and wear Nazi badges but it did so in case of Oskar Schindler, goodness cannot lie, nor does it steal but it did so in case of Leopold Socha and many others like them who had humanity in their hearts and took on the toughest forces of the 20th century.
If we pick up a handful of sand it may have a thousand grains, over thousands of souls lived because of hands such as these, who are honoured at the ‘Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations’ in Jerusalem. They are the ones who saved humanity from annihilation. They showed us the way to live by each other’s prosperity not by each other’s misery. Our erudition must help us become more kind, gentle and compassionate excluding which life will become violent and everything will be lost. This perhaps is the biggest learning from a tragedy of this proportion.