OCT 11 — The wheels of the train grind to a halt. “Oswiecim!” declares the Polish conductor. Disoriented, I stumble out of the train with my bag.
I’m the only person who exits at Auschwitz. Inside the train station, there is no other soul except for an old lady who operates a kiosk.
It is 4.45am in Auschwitz and this is one of the coldest days I have had to endure this autumn.
Images of the horrors of Auschwitz collected from books and movies playing incessantly in my mind kept me awake all night.
After all these years, I’m finally here – the town that witnessed the extermination of 1.1 million human beings.
Within my walls
“Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work is Liberating) says the welcoming sign at the Auschwitz camp; schadenfreude at its worst.
There were many concentration camps erected by the Nazi regime across Europe. In Auschwitz alone, there were three major camps and scores of sub-camps. These camps with brutal living conditions were designed for the Final Solution.
The Holocaust claimed the lives of around 6 million people. This staggering number is insurmountable and can hardly be registered in one’s mind. Statistics reduce reality to mere figures.
Stalin himself was purported to have said that the death of one man is a tragedy while the death of millions is a statistic.
The brain is unable to appreciate the gravity of the situation because of the distance with the said reality. Hence, most of the time reading about the Holocaust would not be able to evoke emotions within the consciousness of a person.
I call this situational distance.
It is the details that bring out the emotions within people. And only books with depth are capable of making us genuinely empathise with the horrors that the victims endured.
Movies, pictures and art which are visual mediums are better able to make us empathise with the conditions that the victims had to go through. The details are more thorough with images firmly able to be implanted within our minds.
Nonetheless, nothing can compare to being in the place itself – with edifices and instruments of torture still existing.
While at the place, I was better able to reconstruct the reality that the victims suffered. It was surreal to think that in the yard where I stood, 12 Polish prisoners were hung because a prisoner escaped.
What was even more bizarre is that if I stood within this gas chamber in between 1942-1944; I would have been gassed with 1,499 other “undesirables”.
The Holocaust was dominated by an erosion of humanity and an absence of compassion. Jews, Poles, Slavs, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, the mentally challenged were all lumped up in a category called undesirables. They were not of the Aryan race or if Aryan, not worthy of being Aryans.
The Jews suffered the worst. Ninety per cent of the victims in Auschwitz were Jews.
The elimination of these people was callous precisely because it was systematic. Everything was carefully planned and executed by a rational bureaucracy.
Lies were told to the Jews – the Nazis claimed they were being transported to a place they can call their own. The most efficient method of disposing large amounts of people was used, from lining up victims and shooting them at the neck to the gas chamber.
The Nazis were very utilitarian when it came to disposing of their victims. Healthy victims were used as slave labour to sustain the economy. Dead bodies were searched for valuables – gold teeth were extracted from victims.
The victims’ hair were harvested to be used for textiles and uniforms. There is a chamber in Auschwitz that displays the voluminous amount of hair.
How anybody can conjure and dream up of this systematic madness is beyond me.
The perils of extremism
What I find hard to understand is: how can an entire nation be engulfed in hatred and be mobilised to persecute a certain category of people? How can a country be gripped by frenzy generated by a group of men, who were no doubt charismatic but nevertheless deranged?
The reasons as to the Nazi ascendancy and the proliferation of their ideology are complex. The Treaty of Versailles impoverished Germany. With hyperinflation, destitution and desperation comes radical solutions – something that the Nazis offered.
The Nazis also employed numerous techniques to manufacture the consent of the masses – from propaganda with Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl spearheading the instruments to win support to coercion by intimidating and killing political opponents.
Nevertheless, I believe that a first reason among equals as to the Nazi atrocities would be the Aryan supremacist ideology that the Nazis perpetuated. This racist and bigoted worldview was premised on the belief that the Aryans were the master race and all other races were subservient to it. This was emphasised by Hitler in Mein Kampf.
Indeed, in order to make more living space (lebensraum) for Germans, Hitler planned the eradication of the Poles after the Jews.
This is the problem with social constructs such as race, religion, ideology, nationalism etc. The feeling of pre-eminence about one’s identity – as an Aryan, a German, a Communist etc is what leads to people losing their sense of humanity.
Fanatics, who seek to only forward their cause, replace compassion with a zealous fervour. For them, with their absolutist beliefs, there is a sense of Machiavellianism where the end justifies the means prevails.
Social constructs are irrational and emotionally laden. Emotions are capable of galvanising action among those who identify with these constructs. The objective is to act on emotional impulses which are gratifying and not to rationally calculate the consequences of these impulses.
Emotions cloud sound judgment.
In order to solidify support from fellow Germans, Hitler needed an enemy. The calls for unity were forwarded. And with the Jewish population already controlling the economy, Hitler found the perfect enemy.
We must be wary of extremists who propagate social constructs as vehicles for power and supremacy.
Humanity consumed by banality
A more pernicious reason as to why the Nazis managed to carry out the atrocities on such an unimaginable scale lies within average people such as us.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt analysed Adolf Eichmann, one of the SS lieutenant colonels responsible for the systematic killing of Jews. Eichmann was a normal individual.
He wasn’t extraordinarily evil, malicious or wicked. He could just be another average reasonable person on the Clapham Omnibus.
Evil is banal because normal, average people comply with their positions within the evil system. They are unaware or choose to be unaware of the consequences of the system that they are colluding with.
They don’t resist – like sheep in a herd being led to the slaughterhouse by the shepherd. They remain blind, uncritical and unquestioningly obedient to authority.
Even today, people are easily mobilised by demagogues who whip up hysteria by evoking emotionally laden buzzwords.
This serves as a poignant reminder to us of the need to always be sceptical of authority.
What happens in Auschwitz, stays in the world
I was alone at the exhibition detailing the fate of Hungarian Jews. That was when I couldn’t contain my emotions any longer.
I broke down and wept at this space which was a former shelter for prisoners.
I wept because of the depravity and loss of humanity that occurred in Auschwitz – I found it hard to comprehend that human beings could have descended so low in the treatment of their fellow men.
It seems that we mortals never seem to learn from history. The genocide in Rwanda and Yugoslavia further demonstrates the debased nature of us humans.
Let Auschwitz be the memorial of sorrows and unforgetting.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.