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16/8/18: some thoughts on what we can learn from the Holocaust

One of many things I like about the school at which I teach is that the senior members of staff post a sign outside their offices indicating what book they are currently reading.  One reason for liking this is that it sends out positive messages to pupils – we want you to read and enjoy reading and look, we read as well!  Another reason is that it gives a good topic for conversation when meeting them casually, ideally if I’ve read the book myself, but one can always use a bit of imagination in the discussion if not.

So I had already heard of the book, “The tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris when I saw it on the headteacher’s door, and put it on my list of books to read over the summer.  This is one of the books I read whilst taking things slowly in the first week, which provoked me to wrestle with some of the very difficult issues the Holocaust provokes, and some further reading, including some eye witness accounts – ‘Auschwitz’, ‘A year in Treblinka’ – ‘The man who broke into Auschwitz’ by Denis Avey, a British prisoner of war, an eye witness account by a psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, ‘Man’s search for meaning’, and perhaps mostly chillingly of all, a book translated by Amy Cravitz by an anonymous Jewish concentration camp prisoner, ‘The Auschwitz slaughterhouse: the shame of a Jewish collaborator’.  Also, from a Japanese perspective, there was ‘The rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang.

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve become so interested in the Holocaust, but three questions particularly come to mind in trying to make sense of it all, looking at things from three different perspectives.  Firstly, from the Nazi perpetrators point of view, what is it that makes ordinary people do such horrific things?  Secondly, from the survivors’ point of view living for a prolonged period under appalling conditions and the work they were required to do, where does reasonable end and unreasonable begin?  And thirdly, from my own point of view, how would I have responded had I lived in and around Germany during that period, either as an Aryan or a Jew, and got caught up with what was going on?

I certainly do not claim to have definitive answers to any of these questions, or anywhere close, but do have some thoughts to share.  As always, interested to know what you think about these difficult issues.

Why do normal people do horrific things?
Of course, the idea that people commit atrocities against other people is nothing new.  A thousand years before Christ we can read accounts of Assyrians (roughly modern day Iraq) torturing their opponents to death, similarly – roughly in date order – the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans taking us up to the time of Christ.  Of course, colonial times gave rise to some utterly shameful acts, it may be the case that the trans-Atlantic slave trade at least initially, tapped into what was already going amongst warring West African tribes, but that’s hardly an excuse.  More recently we can look to Rwanda and Eastern Europe.

The sheer number of people involved in these atrocities would seem to lead to the conclusion that many ordinary people got involved, ending up doing things they would never dream of doing in other circumstances.  How does this end up happening? Let me suggest some partial answers mostly from the perspective of the European Holocaust during the Second World War which, I think, give some sense as to what was going on.

Things changed little by little
As I understand it, in the aftermath of the First World War Germany was in chaos with inflation spiralling out of control, making ordinary living conditions impossible.  The message of the embryonic National Socialist Party, blaming other sovereign powers and Jews within the country for the situation Germany was in and promising a brighter future, had an immediate appeal.  Youth clubs to a large extent were precisely that, at least initially, offering sports and other activities and the political aspects not necessarily in the forefront.  By the time it became apparent quite what was going on, the Nazi party was well established, well past the point of no return.

I can think of many other examples where things have changed gradually over time.  One might consider that, in the great scheme of history, this can lead to positive change.  In the UK when women first got the vote in 1918 it was not on equal terms with men, that came later.  At the time the idea that there would be women prime ministers, heads of police, bishops and so on was not on the agenda.

But there is a clear warning here.  In Ephesians 5:3 St Paul wrote:

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.

Not even a hint.  Why not?  Because a minor act, which seems quite reasonable in itself, “Come on, it can’t matter, everybody else is doing it….” gives rise quite quickly to a new normal state of affairs.  From which further deviations can take place.  And quite quickly one ends up in a situation massively away from the original, but no one step in itself signalled a problem.

Distancing the ‘enemy’
The term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ arose from a bank robbery in 1973, with the 4 robbers keeping 4 bank employees hostage for 6 days before the incident was brought to an end with the robbers being captured.  Somewhat surprisingly, the former hostages not only refused to give evidence against the robbers but raised money for their defence, having got to know them during their imprisonment.  Other similar instances can be found, including where the kidnappers develop an attachment for their hostages.

How does one avoid the Stockholm syndrome?  Keep the ‘enemy’ at a distance.  Don’t get to know them.  Don’t allow children to play with each other.  Tell stories of how terrible they are, with as much truth – or ambiguity - as possible to strengthen the lie.  Taking this line of thought a bit further, don’t think of these other people as people in the same sense as we are, with the need to love and be loved, but as being only one step above animals, if that.  So, when one does appalling things, it’s not to other people but to a lower form of life, which is therefore all right.
The abusers have themselves been abused
This point comes out most strongly in ‘The rape of Nanking’, a Japanese atrocity within China in the late 1930s.  Initial training of soldiers at the time was utterly barbaric, looking to instil a rigid authority structure and unthinking obedience.  Having been abused themselves, with violence having become normal in their lives, how much easier it becomes to inflict this on other people when given the chance?
‘Everybody else is doing it’
In August 2011 a man was shot in Tottenham, North London, by the police, triggering a series of riots across England which lasted for several days, involving thousands of people.  It appeared that, whilst the first outbreaks of violence arose directly out of the original shooting, the longer things went on, and the further from North London the riots took place, the further disattached they became, with a mob mentality taking hold.  Everybody else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?

In my professional work I have seen groups of people behaving in ways which any one of the individuals involved would never dream of doing on their own.  Being with others, working, socialising are all good – but we remain responsible for our own actions.
Why normal people do horrific things: summary
I’m sure there are other factors here, I’ve not explicitly mentioned acculturation of the young but that is another issue which needs to be considered.  Taken together, one can, I think, start to see how appalling things can happen.  I’ll return to this in the conclusions to the whole piece.
Working as a concentration camp prisoner: what is reasonable and unreasonable?
Leaving aside for a moment the reasons for imprisonment, the idea that people should work whilst imprisoned would seem to be entirely reasonable.  For the prisoner, it gives structure to the day and meaningful things to do, in principle gives the opportunity to learn new skills and to be in a position to give the best possible account to future employers on release.  From the prison authorities’ point of view, it reduces the costs involved in running a prison, keeps prisoners meaningfully occupied which then reduces the risk of boredom and rioting.  Everyone’s a winner.

So, again, leaving aside the reasons for Jews being imprisoned in concentration camps just for a moment, the idea that prisoners should work in the kitchens, as cleaners, in reception as new prisoners come in, would seem to be reasonable.

But where does reasonable become unreasonable?  One book which implicitly addresses the issue is ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’ about a prisoner whose job it was to tattoo other prisoners with their identity numbers.

Should a prisoner agree to do this?  Reasons against would include: it’s barbaric, painful, humiliating, treat people like animals or even as objects, it is collaborating with the enemy.  Reasons in favour would include that it is going to happen anyway, if one person doesn’t do it somebody else well, if one person refuses that person puts themselves and many other people around them in mortal danger.  Given that it is going to happen anyway, the job can be done in a way which minimises the pain, both physical and psychological.

What do you think about this?  My own view is that, in the circumstances and with considerable reservations, this represents a legitimate course of action for the prisoner to take.

Perhaps the most heart wrenching of all the books I’ve read recently was ‘The Auschwitz slaughterhouse: the shame of a Jewish collaborator’, written by an anonymous Jewish concentration camp prisoner and translated by Amy Cravitz.  The author, his wife and two sons ended up in a camp, shortly after arrival his wife was brutally beaten to death by guards in full view of many other people, with the author being held down and nobody doing anything to prevent it.  The author then decided that he owed nothing to anybody except himself and his two sons and collaborated fully including, horrifically, forcing a fellow prisoner to eat the faeces of the guards.

The author and his sons survived the war, only then for one son shortly afterwards to commit suicide and the other to end up in long term psychiatric care.  The author himself suffered hugely at the hands of other former camp inmates, but perhaps worst of all suffered at his own hands with his guilt weighing hugely on him.  The book finishes as he explains that the worst time of day for him is in the morning when he shaved, having to look at himself in a mirror.

Given the way things turned out, would it have been better for the author to have refused to collaborate, risking his own death and that of others?  It would appear that the answer is yes, his attempts to look after his sons and himself at the expense of others turned out badly for everybody, not least his fellow prisoners.  Did he cross the line into unreasonable?  There is every reason to believe that he did.

But where, I wonder, do jobs such as clearing dead bodies from the gas chambers fit?  Should prisoners have refused to get involved and accepted the consequences of their refusal?  Or should they have accepted the norms in which they were living, looking to get through a day at a time in the hope that rescue would eventually come?  I want to answer that they should have refused, but do not feel able to do so in all conscience.  Any help you can offer in further thinking through these issues would be gratefully received.

What would I have done?
In my imagination I have tried to put myself in the position both of Jews and Aryans during this period and tried to figure out what I would have done.  Of course, this question is complicated by the fact that, as indicated above, I am not clear what I should have done.  Not having been placed in such terribly difficult circumstances I really don’t know.  I hope and pray that I would acquit myself well in the eyes of God, my fellows and myself, but cannot be at all sure that I would do so.

Maybe, given the circumstances in which I live, this is not a helpful question to be asking, giving rise to speculation which is very difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.  Are there things which we can learn here about how to live our own lives and what kind of society we would wish to live in?  Yes, I think there are, in terms of getting to know each together, taking responsibility for our own actions, and watching out for, and being prepared to speak up against, small changes in how we consider things leading in a negative direction.  In looking to bring meaning out of apparent meaningless, in honouring those who have died in horrific circumstances both recently and in the past, let’s see what we can learn for ourselves to make a repeat of these events less likely.

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