One of the 20th century's grimmest images: electric wire marking the perimeter of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo: AFP/Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto

On a day when the news was a-brim with the deadly potential of the Wuhan coronavirus, the world remembered the murderous impact of a deadlier virus: humanity itself.

On Monday, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi concentration and death camps, was commemorated on ground zero itself, in Poland. European and Israeli leaders were present, but the most searing testimonies were delivered by survivors.

Victims remembered having hair hacked from their heads and numbers being tattooed on their arms. Of the cries of those being conveyed to the gas chambers. And of the stench of incinerated human flesh.

This is important to know – critically important. The voice of victims is paramount when it comes to crime, and of the many, many cruel crimes committed at Auschwitz, one – genocide – is the most terrible in the judicial lexicon.

These atrocities have been burned onto the pages of history; they have also been enshrined in art. The literature of Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi provide eloquent testimonies to the unprecedented suffering of the Jews under the Nazis.

Films have also commemorated the Nazi genocides. Come and See (1985) showed exactly how a massacre was undertaken, through the eyes of a teenager in Byelorussia. Schindler’s List (1993) cast light on humanity in the darkest circumstances. The Painted Bird (2019) compelled some audiences to flee theaters, while others applauded its unflinching gaze into the face of horror.

Given the shear scale of what happened at Auschwitz, and the deliberate intent behind it, the world deserves the fullest possible accounting. Yet while world leaders and victims were present on  Monday, two groups who could help deliver a complete accounting were glaringly absent.

One group was those who made the day – ie the liberators of the camp. The other group was the perpetrators who carried out a planned slaughter of humans in numbers so vast that if the victims were gathered together, their corpses would overflow scores of sport stadiums.

Where were the Red Army veterans who overran all of Germany’s extermination camps? Why was Russian President Vladimir Putin not present?

And where were veterans of the SS – the German political troops who carried out this unimaginable slaughter?

The SS come to Byelorussia – as seen through the eyes of a young would-be partisan. Come and See. Clip: YouTube

The liberators

The liberators should be lauded for obvious reasons. In the struggle against Nazism, the USSR took on the brunt of the German fighting force. The cost was virtually unimaginable: 27 million dead. That metric alone should grant Moscow a somber voice at the table of remembrance.

Certainly, there are historical complexities and issues. The Soviets not only liberated wartime Poland – they occupied post-war Poland and held it until the end of the Cold War. Even so: Any accurate historical reckoning demands that they should not be pushed out of the picture.

More broadly, the fact that the liberators of Auschwitz were unrepresented points to a gap in Western cultural memory. To this day, the machinery of the Holocaust is not well understood among Western publics. In fact, every single one of the death camps – the extermination camps – was liberated not by the Western Allies, but by the Red Army.

For those unfamiliar with the Holocaust, the line between “concentration camp” and “death camp” may be a fine distinction. After all, footage of British troops liberating Belsen and US troops liberating Dachau was so sickening that some believed, at the time the films were first shown, that they could only be products of over-wrought Allied propaganda. As we now know, they were not.

Yet these two camps – and others liberated by the Western Allies – were not extermination camps. They were concentration camps. In the latter camps, the heaped bodies, the stacks of dying in tiered bunks,  the crowds of skeletal survivors, were a result of exhaustion, malnutrition, disease. In short, they were (very largely) victims of mismanagement and callousness by Nazi authorities.

The extermination camps were different. There, murder was not a byproduct. It was the sole aim.

There were six of these man-made hells. Belzek, Chelmo, Sobibor and Treblinka were pure killing centers. Extermination sub-camps were also set up in concentration/labor camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.

All were in Poland. The victims in these camps were not conveyed to these places to be slave laborers. They were taken there, by the train load, for the express purpose of being slaughtered.

Humanity amid horror: Schindler’s List. Clip: YouTube

The killers

This brings us to the perpetrators. At Auschwitz on Monday, there were no elderly men or women in faded black uniforms with death’s heads on their caps and the double lightning flash of the SS on their collars.

Of course, their absence is understandable. Were any SS to appear – perhaps to offer excuses; perhaps to beg for forgiveness; perhaps to defiantly croak a final voice to their murderous creed – they would be arrested on sight. And such arrests would be just.

Yet humanity – if it is to learn anything from its darkest hour – should give history’s worst killers a hearing.

History is an academic discipline. It teaches the young and the interested. As with criminology, it analyzes why things happen. We absolutely must try to understand why our fellow humans could act as they did in (say) Treblinka.

Which is to say – this.

To create a dedicated rail station in a forest clearing, complete with a faux ticket office, a clock (with painted hands) and even a band playing to welcome to arriving trains. To cheerfully separate men from women and children on the platform; to politely explain to them why they needed to divest themselves of their belongings; and to then to suggest they strip themselves for a shower.

We need to understand why these same men could change in an instant – brandishing weapons and attack dogs to herd the naked, defenseless people through a corridor of barbed wire into a chamber set behind the platform. There, doors would be slammed, fumes released. Subsequently, the cadavers would be placed on giant griddles made of rail lines and incinerated.

I am not arguing that understanding should replace justice. Some crimes are only punishable with a bullet or a noose.

Adolf Eichmann was renditioned from South America to Israel by Israeli agents to account for himself. A uniformed bureaucrat who did not pull a trigger, but who delivered millions of victims into the maw of the murder machine, Eichmann went to his executioner unrepentant.

Other SS leaders, confronted with the gravity of their crimes, opened their eyes.

Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, was granted the opportunity to pen his memoirs – subsequently published as Death Dealer (with an introduction by Primo Levi) – and confession by his Polish captors. In a West German prison, Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, agreed to extensive interviews with journalist Gitta Sereny for her research into the death camps, Into That Darkness.

Höss was hanged after penning his confession. Stangl died of heart failure less than one day after his last interview with Sereny.

Watch it at your peril: The Painted Bird has caused some audience members to flee theaters. Clip: YouTube

‘Never forget’ requires accurate remembrance

It is easy to intone the cliches, “Never forget.” But without a basic understanding of what happened, what is to be forgotten?  Today, there are multiple misunderstandings about the Nazi murder machine.

That it only impacted Jews. (Actually, millions of other victims – notably Slavs, and including Gypsies and homosexuals  – were also devoured.)

That it was conducted by brutal thugs. (Actually, Stangl was considered a gentleman by West German prison staff, and most commanders of the SS Einzatzgruppe death squads held PhDs.)

That “the commies were just as bad.” (Actually, there were no industrialized extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka even in the worst of Stalin’s gulags, and even amid Mao Zedong’s most manic policies.)

And so on.

The Nazi genocide was the end terminus of prejudice. Prejudice, and mob mentality, remains rife across the world. To prevent prejudice from transitioning to a “Final Solution” we need a fully informed comprehension. That comprehension must extend beyond the barriers of ethnicity, nationality and politics.

And it must include the voices of the perpetrators, for to prevent crime, the motivations of criminals must be understood.  Only by hearing these voices can such voices be recognized, acknowledged, debated and defended against.

Analyses, not whitewashes

Yet, there is a trend underway worldwide to eradicate or whitewash brutal history, with the intention of obviating offense. This trend extends from the destruction of Confederate statuary to a refusal to countenance Swastikas, SS runes or Rising Sun emblems.

It may be driven by good intentions, but is problematic. It is reminiscent of stabbing fingers into ears or thrusting heads into sand. At worst, it destroys evidence of crimes.

Case in point? Treblinka. The forested extermination zone where 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered was destroyed and its site camouflaged with farm buildings – not by do-gooders eager to prevent hurt feelings, but by Nazis making a (vain) effort to hide evidence.

Fortunately for humanity, Auschwitz stands today as the ultimate memorial of man’s inhumanity to man. It is a hopefully everlasting monument that reminds us that the very worst can, indeed, happen.

Related issues cannot be censored; they must be confronted. Justices confront the crimes of today; historians confront the crimes of yesterday. Judgments, sentencing and condemnation must be informed by free information and free debate – the hallmarks of a moral civilization.

Above all, we must not blind ourselves to realities. The starkest reality of the Holocaust is simple but damning: The Nazi genocide was not carried out by phantoms, aliens or monsters. It was perpetrated by our fellow humans.

To refuse to accept this – to refuse to interrogate the perpetrators; to decline to divine their motivations; to be blind to the potential of today’s prejudices becoming tomorrow’s “Final Solutions” – willfully denies ourselves critical knowledge for mankind’s betterment, and perhaps, its survival.

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