Tag Archives: Rudolf Hoess

“Men Alone are Capable of Every Wickedness” the Reality Of Human Nature and the Holocaust

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Two weeks ago Saturday was Holocaust Remembrance Day in the United States. I had the honor of speaking about not forgetting the Holocaust at Norfolk’s Temple Israel. When I look at the Holocaust and the men who managed and executed the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe, I realize the wisdom of the words of Joseph Conrad, who wrote:

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

Holocaust survivor and philosopher Primo Levi wrote, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” 

The truth is that human beings are incredibly capable of committing great evil and wickedness. The Holocaust stands alone, above every other genocide committed in history. Laurence Rees in his book Auschwitz, a New History, ended that book with these words:

We must judge behavior by the context of the times, and judged by the context of mid-twentieth century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ “Final Solution” represent the lowest act in all history. Through their crime, the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do – as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearned. It lies there – ugly, inert, waiting to be discovered by each new generation. A warning for us, and for those who will come after.

That bring me to tonight’s subject. Seventy-seven years ago a group of 15 relatively common bureaucrats of various German government, police, and party agencies sat around a table and discussed the implementation of what is called the Final Solution, or in German Endlösung. The meeting was chaired by SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, who had been charged with the task of solving Germany’s “Jewish Problem” shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Hermann Goering, the number two man in the Nazi Reich sent Heydrich the following message:

Berlin, July 31st 1941

To: Gruppenfuhrer Heydrich

Supplementing the task assigned to you by the decree of January 24th 1939, to solve the Jewish problem by means of evacuation and emigration in the best possible way by according to present conditions, I hereby charge you to carry out preparations as regards organizational, financial, and material matters for a total solution (Gesamtlosung) of the Jewish question in all the territories of Europe under German occupation.

Where the competency of other organizations touches on this matter, the organizations are to collaborate. 

I charge you further to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for the carrying out the desired final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question.”

Goering

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Reinhard Heydrich

When Goering wrote Heydrich, who headed the Reichssiecherhiethauptampt (RSHA) or Reich Security Main Office, in July 1941 it seemed that Nazi victory in Europe was all but assured. Goering’s words were businesslike, and his words describing the Jews in terms of a question were euphemism of dehumanization. The late Christopher Hitchens understood how labeling ethnic or religious groups as in terms of questions or problems allowed people to escape the human realities of their solutions.

“Die Judenfrage,’ it used to be called, even by Jews. ‘The Jewish Question.’ I find I quite like this interrogative formulation, since the question—as Gertrude Stein once famously if terminally put it—may be more absorbing than the answer. Of course one is flirting with calamity in phrasing things this way, as I learned in school when the Irish question was discussed by some masters as the Irish ‘problem.’ Again, the word ‘solution’ can be as neutral as the words ‘question’ or ‘problem,’ but once one has defined a people or a nation as such, the search for a resolution can become a yearning for the conclusive. Endlösung: the final solution.”

The early measures taken by Heydrich to rid Germany and annexed Austria had been reasonably successful to rid those areas of their Jews through emigration and evacuation. These were not benign measures, people were forced to leave their homes, businesses, communities, and had most of their belongings taken from them in order to leave the Reich. However with the occupation of most of Europe following the Nazi military success and the looming occupation and subjugation of the Soviet Union the process of giving the Jews a chance to emigrate to lands outside Nazi control had come to an end. In fact the Nazis occupied the countries that may Jews had found refuge. In Heydrich, Goering, most likely acting on the verbal orders of Hitler, had found the man to execute the final solution of the Jewish Problem. Heydrich was the one man who could break through resistance of competing government and party offices and bring them into line.

Less than six months after he received the directive from Goering, on January 20th 1942 Heydrich summoned representatives from various Reich agencies were called for what turned out to be a brief, two hour meeting which decided the fate of the Jews. The meeting was held at an estate located in the suburbs of Berlin, called Wansee. Organized by Heydrich’s deputy Adolph Eichmann, involved Heydrich, Eichmann and 13 mid level representatives from various economic, governmental, justice and police entities.

Order of Heydrich to Martin Luther, Under Secretary of the Foreign Ministry

At the conference Heydrich established his authority through Goering’s directive to overcome the bureaucratic and personal attempts of various attendees to take control of the Final Solution process. Despite objections from some attendees who favored sterilization and the use of Jews in the war armaments industries, Heydrich made it clear that the Final Solution would be a campaign of extermination. He was quite clear:

Estimates of Jews to be Exterminated from Wannsee Documents

“Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved…in large single sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated through natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtlessly consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”

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Auschwitz

The Nazi leadership decided that its race war against the Jews needed to forge ahead. Within days of Wansee the orders went out and SS commanders at various concentration camps began devising more efficient means to exterminate Jews and other “sub-humans.” It was a matter of pride and efficiency for them. As Rudolf Hoess the Commandant of Auschwitz said at Nuremberg “the camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyclon B….” Hoess estimated that some 2.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz at rates as high as 10,000 a day.

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Einsatzgruppen in Action

Of course before the Endlösung was decided on in Berlin and and the pieces were put into place at Wannsee, the Einsatzgruppen had been at work for over six months in the Soviet Union. Four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. The EinsatzgruppenOrdungspolizei Battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units in fewer than six months, killed over a million and a half Soviet Jews, and the slaughter would continue unabated until the dying days of the Reich.

Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich’s friend and superior told a gathering of senior SS leaders:

“I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly. It should be discussed among us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public…I am talking about the “Jewish evacuation” the extermination of the Jewish people.” 

It is One of the things that is easily said. “The Jewish people is being exterminated,” every Party member will tell you, “perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.” 

But then along they all come, all the decent upright Germans and each has his decent Jew. They all say: the others are all swine, but here is a first class Jew. And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, or when there are 500 or 1000. And to have seen this through, and –with the exception of human weaknesses– to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned….”

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Himmler and his entourage 

Whether the words are those of Goering, Heydrich, Hoess or Himmler, there is a certain businesslike banality to them. But these men, and many others like them orchestrated a campaign of genocide and race hatred unmatched in history. Yes, there have been other genocides, the Turks killing the Armenians during the First World War and the Hutu and Tutsi slaughter in Rwanda but neither they or the politically motivated campaigns of mass slaughter conducted by the Soviets, the Chinese Communists and the Khamer Rouge killing fields can match the systematized extermination campaign waged by the Nazis against the Jews. Today we cannot allow the Holocaust to become just another terrible event in the history of humanity.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate and it was the Jews who were the object of Hitler’s most bloodthirsty actions.

But without the bureaucrats, the mayors, district leaders, party functionaries, police officers, soldiers, railroad officials, businessmen, and others who helped there could have been no Holocaust. As Laurence Rees wrote:

“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” 

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Timothy Snyder correctly observed that “The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

That is something that we must never forget lest the would be architects of annihilation of our day; the American President, other politicians, preachers, propagandists, and profiteers, who demonize the Jews, Muslims, dark skinned immigrants, LTBTQ people and other inconvenient elements and prepare people to do evil or ignore it: the ordinary men who just obey orders. Primo Levi who I quoted at the beginning was right, the common me, those that don’t think but simply follow orders or turn their heads and ignore the evil who are the most dangerous.

Milton Mayer wrote in his book They Thought They Were Free about a German colleague during the 1950s that had lived through the Hitler years as an academic. The man tried to explain how changes were so gradual that people like him who should have known better did not take action, if they did at all until it was too late. The man asked Mayer:

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.”

We cannot forget and we must always be vigilant or we too could easily succumb, it’s not that hard. Any of us can be a perpetrator, victim or bystander. Yehuda Bauer wrote these words of warning:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.“

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

Who Were the Bodies? The Nazi Crimes Against Humanity in Retrospect

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the film Judgement at Nuremberg the American Prosecutor at the Judges Trial played by Richard Widmark asked a question when showing a film of the victims of the Nazis when the Concentration Camps were liberated by American and British troops in the spring of 1945. His question in the face of films of massed piles of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Bergen-Belsen, of the cremated remains, shrunken skulls, and lampshades made of human skin at Buchenwald, gas chambers, medical experiments, the emaciated bodies of still living victims; little more than skin and bones, elbows, hips, and knees bulging over the shrunken remains of their bodies, eyes sunken in to the skulls.

Who Were they?

The Nazis specifically targeted the Jews for extermination. According to Hitler, his hnchemen, and other German nationalists, the Jews were less than human, they worked hand in hand with the Bolsheviks, and thus deserved their fate. Likewise, there were those crippled in body or mind who were euthanized, political opponents, religious and racial minorities, populations of conquered nations, who died at the hands of the German military, or who were gunned down in mass graves by the Einsatzgruppen, intentionally starved to death, or who were worked to death as Slave laborers in the Nazi work camps.

They were men and women, wives and husbands, sons and daughters. They spanned the spectrum from infants to the aged. Too many times multiple generations of families went to death together. Hermann Graebe, a civilian employed to help build roads for the Wehrmacht came across one of the many massacres committed up close and personal by SS Men on October 5th 1943 at Dubno, Ukraine. He testified:

Moennikes and I went direct to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession, from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks—men, women and children of all ages—had to undress upon the orders of an SS-man, who carried a riding or dog whip.

They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of underlinen and clothing. Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another SS-man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand.

During the 15 minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about 8 persons, a man and woman, both about 50 with their children of about 1, 8 and 10, and two grown up daughters of about 20 to 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one year old child in her arms and singing to it, and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed toward the sky, stroked his head, and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the SS-man at the pit shouted something to his comrade.

I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks.

I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were two or three postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already.

These victims were not just numbers and statistics. They were living breathing human beings whose lives were snuffed out by the Nazis and their allies. They had been abandoned by most of the world. Anything of value that they possessed was appropriated by the men who exterminated them; their businesses, homes, farms, clothes, shoes, currency, jewelry, wedding rings, artwork, furniture, and even their gold fillings, and yes, their hair, and even their skin.

Whole towns were exterminated, millions of people killed and millions of other people displaced, never to return to their homes. At Babi Yar outside of Kiev 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as Police battalions. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. The German Army provided logistic support as well as security for the murder squads.

Fritz Hoefer, a SS man serving as a truck driver with the Sonderkommando said these words at the Einsatzgruppen Trial:

One day I was ordered to drive my truck out of town. I had a Ukrainian with me. It was about 10 a.m. On our way, we passed Jews marching in columns in the same direction, we were going. They were carrying their belongings. There were whole families. The farther we drove away from the town, the more people we saw in the columns. There were piles of clothes in a wide open field. My job was to fetch them.   

I stopped the engine nearby, and the Ukrainians standing around started loading the car with this stuff. From where I was, I saw other Ukrainians meeting the Jews who arrived, men, women and children, and directing them to the place where, one after another, they were supposed to remove their belongings, coats, shoes, outer garments and even their underwear.

They were supposed to put all their belongings together in a pile. Everything happened very quickly, the Ukrainians hurried those who hesitated by kicking and pushing them. I think it took less than a minute from the moment a person took off his coat before he was standing completely naked.

No distinction was made between men, women and children. The Jews who were arriving could have turned back when they saw those who had come earlier taking off their clothes. Even today I cannot understand why they didn’t run.

 

Columns of Jews march past a corpse in Kiev

Naked Jews were led to a ravine about 150 metres long, 30 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The Jews went down into the ravine through two or three narrow paths. When they got closer to the edge of the ravine, members of the Schutzpolizei (Germans) grabbed them and made them lie down over the corpses of the Jews who had already been shot.

It took no time. The corpses were carefully laid down in rows. As soon as a Jew lay down, a Schutzpolizist came along with a sub-machine gun and shot him in the back of the head.The Jews who descended into the ravine were so frightened by this terrible scene that they completely lost their will. You could even see some of them lying down in the row on their own and waiting for the shot to come.

Only two members of the Schutzpolizei did the shooting. One of them was working at one of the ravine, the other started at the other end. I saw them standing on the bodies and shooting one person after another.

Walking over the corpses toward a new victim who had already laid down, the machine gunner shot him on the spot. It was an extermination machine that made no distinction between men, women and children.Children were kept with their mothers and shot with them. I did not watch for long. When I approached the edge, I was so frightened of what I that I could not look at it for a long time.

 

German Einsatzgruppen & Police force groups of Jews to hand over their possessions and undress before being shot in the ravine at Babi Yar

I saw dead bodies at the bottom laid across in three rows, each of which was approximately 60 metres long. I could not see how many layers were there. It was beyond my comprehension to see bodies twitching in convulsions and covered with blood, so I could not make sense of the details.Apart from the two machine gunners, there were two other members of the Schutzpolizei standing near each passage into the ravine.

They made each victim lie down on the corpses, so that the machine gunner could shoot while he walked by. When victims descended into the ravine and saw this terrible scene at the last moment, they let out a cry of terror. But they were grabbed by the waiting Schutzpolizei right away and hurled down onto the others.

Those who followed them could not see the terrible scene because it was obstructed by the edge of the ravine. While some people were getting undressed and most of the others were waiting their turn, there was a lot of noise. The Ukrainians paid no attention to the noise and just kept forcing people through the passages into the ravine.

You could not see the ravine from the site where people were taking off their clothes, because it was situated about 150 metres away from the first pile of clothes. Besides, a strong wind was blowing and it was very cold. You couldn’t hear the shooting in the ravine.

Jews at Babi Yar waiting to be murdered

So I concluded that the Jews had no idea what was actually happening. Even today I wonder why the Jews did nothing to challenge what was going on. Masses of people were coming from town and they did not seem to suspect anything.

They thought they were just being relocated.              

The men who were the leaders of the mobile Einsatzgruppen which conducted these up close and personal killings of nearly a million and a half Jews and others were not common thugs. Most were very educated and accomplished men.

General Telford Taylor, an American lawyer who served as a prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen Trial explained:

“These defendants are not German peasants or artisans drafted into the Wehrmacht. They are not uneducated juveniles. They are lawyers, teachers, artists, and a former clergyman. They are, in short, men of education, who were in full possession of their faculties and who fully understood the grave and sinister significance of the program they embarked upon. They were part of the hard core of the SS. They did not give mere lip service to Himmler’s atrocious racial doctrines; they were chosen for this terrible assignment because they were thought to be men of sufficient ruthlessness to carry them out. They are hand-picked fanatics; every one of them was an officer of the SS … They are not unhappy victims, unwillingly pushed into crime by the tyranny of the Third Reich; these men, above all others, themselves, spread the Nazi doctrine with fire and sword.”

The men who ran the death camps might not have been from the same “elite” stock as the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen but they carried out their duties in calculating and businesslike manner. Rudolf Hoess who commanded Auschwitz gave this statement to the International Military Tribunal:

On 1 December 1943 1 became Chief of Amt 1 in Amt Group D of the WVHA, and in that office was responsible for co-ordinating all matters arising between RSHA and concentration camps under the administration of WVHA. I held this position until the end of the war. Pohl, as Chief of WVHA, and Kaltenbrunner, as Chief of RSHA, often conferred personally and frequently communicated orally and in writing concerning concentration camps. . . .

The ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe. I was ordered to establish extermination facilities at Auschwitz in June 1941. At that time, there were already in the General Government three other extermination camps: Belzek, Treblinka, and Wolzek. These camps were under the Einsatzkommando of the Security Police and SD. I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Cyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from 3 to 15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one-half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special Kommandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.

When he was asked specifics, Hoess stated: This gold was melted down and brought to the Chief Medical Office of the SS at Berlin.

He continued with some pride during cross examination:

Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber to accommodate 2,000 people at one time whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each. The way we selected our victims was as follows: We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.

But the bodies…

Jews and Gentiles from every nation in Europe as well as the Americas, Africa, and Asia ended up dying at the hands of the Nazis, either in their Death Camps, Concentration/ Labor Camps, or up close and personal at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the Waffen SS, or the Wehrmacht.

Every one of those bodies, the cold statistics of the Nazi machine were people like you and me. In April I visited the United States Holocaust Museum while visiting friends in Washington D. C.

I think that the one that hit me the hardest was the pictorial Tower of Faces from the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki. That town was home to some 4,000 Jews and the pictures had been taken over the preceding decade by local photographers. They were pictures of everyday family and community life; men, women, children at work, at play, at rest. Worshipping, working, studying, the old and the young, the well off and the poor, the religious and those not as religious at all phase of life captured in photos for eternity. For 3500 of them their lives ended on September 21st 1941 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews at their Synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and executed them by firing squad in mass graves at the town’s Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Only 29 of those who survived that day lived through the war. That Jewish community had existed for 900 years and was exterminated in a matter of hours.

I looked at those pictures and I could not get over all of those innocent lives cut short. Each face was the picture of an individual or individuals, families, friends, schoolmates. They were not abstract numbers or statistics but real flesh and blood people like you and me. They had hopes and dreams, but because they were Jews they were exterminated, like nearly six million other Jews who also were real people with hopes and dreams that would be destroyed by the Nazi racial war. Of course the Nazis targeted others, but none with the relentless anti-Semitic racial hatred propagated by Nazi ideology. Thus they condoned and executed by people who would have ordinarily have been considered upstanding and moral citizens. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.” 

The Jewish-Italian Philosopher and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we ill have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

I write because the remaining witnesses to the Nazi Crimes are dying off and deniers are becoming ever more numerous. In researching this article I came across a man, an American of all people, who is denying the mass murder at Babi Yar. I have to shake my head, but the fact is that such people have become emboldened by the Presidency of Donald Trump. They see in him a kindred spirit. Such does not bode well for the future, and the lives who will stand behind the faces and names of the future crimes against humanity.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, Loose thoughts and musings, nazi germany, News and current events

The Path of Remembrance: A Visit to Dachau

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

The picture that you see above is the memorial to the Unknown Prisoner at Dachau. The words: “Den Toten zur Ehr, den Lebenden zur Mahnung” [To Honor the Dead, to Warn the Living] are engraved at its base.

Yesterday, Munich time, I took short excursion to Dachau in order to visit the Concentration Camp. I have been to Dachau a number of times beginning back in 1996. For me as a historian of the period the trip is both for learning and for meditation, for beyond its historical significance this is a holy place, a place made holy by the blood of tens of thousands of victims of one of the most evil regimes in history. The crimes committed by the staff of Totenkopfverbande SS guards from it’s inception were intended to terrorize and dehumanize the inmates who included political prisoners, religious objectors, Jews, and homosexuals. They were not there because they were convicted of any crimes, in fact many had actually been exonerated by courts, or had served what ever sentence they had been convicted of, but upon release were picked up by the SS and taken to Dachau.

Prisoners were told on arrival:

Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.

In the Camp they were subject to punishment for even the most minor or perceived infractions, beatings, whippings, and other punishments were meted out by guards who themselves were punished if they showed any mercy or human kindness to a prisoner. “While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards.”

Theodore Eicke, the commandant who systematized the Concentration Camp system created a world that his subordinate, and the later Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess described:

“It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.”

Even a brutal man like Hoess found the brutality hard to watch, he recalled the “malicious evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total.”

In the twelve years of its existence the staff of Dachau, through mistreatment, execution by bullet, gallows, through being used as subjects in grotesque medical experiments, by “execution by work,” or untreated illness and disease, murdered 41,566 prisoners. The point to be remembered is that despite this incredible number of murders that Dachau was not an extermination camp.

I took the S-Bahn from Munich-East to Dachau, a trip of about 30 minutes. While there I read the chapter in Richard Evans book Third Reich in Power that described the establishment and operations of Dachau and the other early Concentration Camps, from which all of the quotes above this are from. When I got off the train I had a choice of taking a bus to the camp or walking to it via the path known as the Weg des Erinnerns or Path of Remembrance. I chose the walk which was about two miles. Along it there were markers with parts of the history of Dachau and what the prisoners experienced from getting off a train to getting to the camp. The path winds through the town along the street now named Friedenstrasse, (Peace Street) and through John F. Kennedy Platz.

As I neared the camp the signs pointed out the SS Training School and housing for the SS guards. Then it left the paved road and went onto a trail which was uncovered in 2004. This trail is named Strasse der KZ – Opfer, or the Street of the Concentration Camp Victims, or perhaps better translated, “Sacrificial Victims” which was the path that the prisoners took from the SS barracks to the camp itself. It ended at the Hauptwache, the main guardhouse which also functioned as the entrance to the camp.

I went through the wrought iron gate with the cynical words Arbeit Mach Frei, work makes you free in the center of it. On entering to the right is the camp’s administration and headquarters building which now serves as a museum. Since I spent a lot of time at the museum last year I went left which took me down the western perimeter of the camp with its barbed wire fences and guard tower with the foundations of the camps prisoner barracks to my right.

Eventually I reached the location of the execution grounds and the crematorium. I had been there in 1996 but the weather was so cold and damp that I didn’t stay long and I have never found the pictures that I took then. Today I spent more time there, for it is truly the holy place in the camp. Even though there were a good number of people there, including a tour group, it was very quiet. I heard very few words as I walked the area. The first thing I did was to walk the execution grounds around the crematorium. In front of the building the former location of the camp gallows was marked. Behind the building was a memorial with a Star of David crowned with a Menorah and a marker to the thousands of unknown victims. Walking to the right of it down a gravel path that winds through a small grove of trees along the camp wall there were other markers to where the ashes of those murdered were unceremoniously deposited between 1933 and 1945.

But perhaps the most chilling marker was at the place where SS guards executed prisoners up close and personal with a pistol shot to the nape of the neck. The wall behind where they knelt still stands a long with the blood ditch. After that I walked to the crematorium. At the south end there is the delousing station. The camp was designed with a gas chamber for which there is no credible information of it ever being used. Instead, prisoners who were no longer fit for work were either given lethal injections in the infirmary, sent to extermination camps, or the former T4 Euthanasia site in Hardheim.

Had it been used the the procedure would have been much like the other camps where the unknowing prisoners walked in their camp uniforms which were then removed so they could go into a waiting area before they entered the “shower” or as it is marked over the entrance, the Brausbad. At Dachau this cynically named room was the a gas chamber that was designed to hold up to 150 prisoners. Once they were in the chamber the specially constructed doors which would make the chamber airtight were shut. Then SS men on the roof would release canisters of Zyklon-B gas into it. Within minutes the prisoners were dead, their bodies showing their final agony as many tried to escape the chamber. This was common at other camps as well as in the extermination camps.

Once the executioners had determined that the prisoners were dead and the gas was evacuated from the chamber, other prisoners would enter to remove the bodies to another waiting room, in which the bodies were staged before they were taken to the four chamber crematorium for cremation. Their ashes were then deposited in the areas nearby. At the end of the building another waiting room contained bodies of other prisoners who had been executed by pistol, or died of beatings, whippings, or disease.

The walk through those areas of the camp as well as the walk up the Path of Remembrance brought me close to tears at many points as I imagined what it must have been like. I was in a somber mood when I left that area and walked past the Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious shines along the north edge of the camp. I think that the Jewish one was the most poignant to me. Across it were the words of Psalm 9:21 in German, and as one walks down into it a hole at the top off the monument’s roof allows light to stream into the darkness.

Finishing that I walked down the eastern wall and fence, once again noticing the guard towers, but about halfway down I turned right and walked over to the center street between the rows of prisoner barracks, the street known as Appelallee where the prisoners were assembled multiple times per day for head count and inspection purposes. As I walked down that street which is now lined with trees and markers denoting which prisoner block was at each spot I could almost see the images of the emaciated prisoners falling out for inspection and their brutal guards.

Finally I arrived back at the area in front of the headquarters building which due to a recent commemoration was decorated with wreaths from the German government, the State of Bavaria, Israel, Romania, and other nations. The words Never Again were prominently displayed. As I walked out of the camp I saw a dedication in English, German, French, and Russian which said:

May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Naziism – help to unite the living for the defense of peace, and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.

I left the camp and decided to take the bus back to the train station where twenty minutes later I was back on a S-Bahn train to Munich.

You may wonder why I took the time to go into such detail about this walk. The answer is the same that I choose to walk civil war battlefields, it is to being to try to understand what the people there were seeing and experiencing. Of course there were the prisoners who were so savagely treated by their jailers. Then there were the bystanders, the citizens of Dachau and other German cities who watched as Jews, political enemies, and others were marched to the camp, which was not a secret installation. Finally, there were the perpetrators, very few of whom were punished for their actions.

But another reason is that the survivors, be they victims, perpetrators, or bystanders are rapidly passing away. Soon none will be left. When that happens it is up to us the living to ensure that this is not forgotten and that those murdered at Dachau, the other Concentration Camps, the extermination camps, and those killed by the murder squads that went from one end of Europe to the other in a systematic attempt to wipe every Jew that they could find off of the face of the earth. Yes, there were other victims, but the Nazi crusade against the Jews knew no boundaries, physical or time included. Unlike every other genocide it extended beyond national borders, or time; it was an eschatological crusade that by the will of Hitler was limited by only one factor, the complete military defeat that was inflicted on Nazi Germany by those who she attacked.

Finally, the story must be told because there are those who either claim it didn’t happen, or are tired of talking about it. In Germany those include leaders of the new-Nazi AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. In the United States, Britain, and other nations there are members of many new-Nazi and Alt-Right groups who desire very much the same thing, but if decent people decide not to speak out, if we remain silent, there is nothing anywhere that will keep these ideological descendants of Hitler from beginning it again, if not to the Jews, to other despised racial, religious, ethnic, or ideological groups. We live in a world where demagogues take advantage of people’s legitimate anxieties and deeply ingrained prejudices to stir up ungodly anger and hatred in order to both gain new followers and to incite those followers to a campaign of violence.

Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Today among other things I will visit sites associated with Sophie Scholl. She was a young Christian college student who led the opposition group the White Rose, which during 1941-1943 attempted to tell the truth about what the Nazis were doing. They were found out, and most after trial were beheaded in Munich. There is a small marker to her and the group just about a block from the hotel on the wall of a building. Her grave is in a cemetery less than a mile from the hotel.

The one thing about Germany as opposed to other nations, including Japan in China, Korea, and much of Asia, Russia and the mass exterminations of Stalin’s time, Belgium in the Congo, Britain in many of its colonies, much of Eastern Europe, Turkey, and yes, even the United States has faced its responsibility to remember the victims of their most evil and lawless government. If only other nations would take such deliberate steps to acknowledge their crimes. It may have taken over a generation for that to become a part of Germany’s being and part of their moral voice today. In Germany the monuments stand not to the perpetrators, but to the victims. An they are not just monuments, dedicated to memory, but the German words Denkmal and gedenkstatte contain the German word for think, meaning that they are not just there for people to remember a mythological past, but rather to be a part of the now living the history of those days for the living to ponder and to serve as a warning that it can happen again.

In a world where nothing is guaranteed and where those who deny or minimize the Holocaust attempt to find legitimacy and to silence good people I have to speak up. I cannot allow myself to become a bystander and let it all happen again, not to the Jews or anyone else.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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