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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
On the Holocaust 10.XI.2008 13:30
In my hometown of Łódź, in Poland, there's a park through which I'd always walk to get to my grandparents' house. In this park stands a large sculpture, in the shape of a broken heart; a part of the crack forms the silhouette of a child. I remember that as a boy - I must have been about eight years old - I tried to squeeze through the silhouette, but I couldn't; I couldn't even come close. The park stands at the centre of what, fifty year earlier, had been a detention camp for boy, officially aged ten to eighteen but in reality as young as two. The leader of the Judenrat in the Łódź Ghetto, the second-largest in Poland, was once asked to deport 20,000 Jews; thinking the ability to work would save the remaninder, he voluntarily purged the ghetto of every child under 10; they could not work, and were sure to die anyway. I could not fit through the silhouette because the child it represents had had his body destroyed by famine, experiencing years of what must have been unimaginable hunger. My grandfather explained to me that this was what the Germans had done to children in the Second World War. There was also a flame in front of the monument, and I was told that it would burn forever so that the memory of the victims would never die. A few years later, as I walked through the park again, I noticed it was out.

Today, I stood in a large circular room filled with thousands of file folders, which wound around the room, stretching from a floor far beneath the platform on which we were standing to a ceiling far above. The sheer number was unimaginable, seeming the uniform output a massive cataloguing effort by some unfeeling bureaucracy. They stood there, a monolithic wall of anonymity, arranged alphabetically. In fact, they were anything but anonymous; in each was a set of files, and each of those contained a name. Many contained other documents, photographs, but in every one at least a name, and each name belonged to a person who once walked this earth. These are the victims of the Holocaust, and they are remembered in the Hall of Names at Yad vaShem in Jerusalem, their personal document included in an attempt to disprove Stalin's truism that a million deaths - in this case, six - are a statistic; an attempt to fill, in some small way, the world's largest cenotaph.

Growing up in the West, the Holocaust has always been seen as the archetype of evil, so much so that it is worthy of capitalisation, an Abstraction all its own. But why? It was not the mere fact of genocide - we didn't blink through the Rwandan genocide, which occurred long after we said 'never again', not are we paying attention to the current one in Darfur - I have just had a moment of profound shame with the realisation that the latter has fallen so far out of the news cycle that I don't even know to what extent it still continues. Nor was it the sheer number - the Mongol hordes killed many more millions, and the Jews were not even the most numerous victims of World War II: the Russians suffered 10,000,000 civilian deaths, and the Chinese, who are often considered 'outside' the war from our perspective, a staggering 16,000,000. Nor was it the Holocaust's brutality; nothing that occurred at Auschwitz could compare to the terror of the Mongol hordes, who would push living prisoners ahead of their advancing army so that defenders would hesitate to fire on loved ones; or the bloody horror that was Rwanda; or even to the most brutal of World War II tragedies, the Rape of Nanking. I think what terrifies us, what bears the most reflection, and what must never be forgot, is the mentality of the killers, the form which the killings took; for in the Holocaust, the one thing that's impossible to ignore is the presence of rational thought on the part of the killers.

I think that human beings instinctively understand bloodlust - not on any conscious level, of course, but we know that somewhere deep within our revolutionary lineage lurks something dark, uncompromising and focused only on its own survival and the satisfaction of its basest urges - what Victorians might have called the Savage and seen in the peoples of Africa. Every war has been characterised by this, as the conquering victors, having undergone terrible conditions, terrible fears, their minds and emotions none, were let loose upon the vanquished and the weak to satify whatever urge - for vengeance, for money, for women - that happened to grip them at that moment. The stories of rape, murder and plunder in every conquered city should horrify us, but they rarely do, and I think it's because we simply cannot empathise with the killers; we have never been in a situation where we have given ourselves over entirely to our animalistic instincts. The holocaust perpetrators are different; their highly bureaucratic functions mirror our own, and the meticulous records they kept look just like ours, with the cargo on our bills of lading replaced by human beings. Many people blame our focus on the holocaust on Eurocentric racism, but I think what we really dread is the institutionalisation; in this important way, the Holocaust was different from all the mass murders in recent memory.

In the 'Democratic Republic' of the Congo, a group of soldiers approach a woman; she is pregnant, in the late stages. They stop her, and make a wager: what is the gender of the baby? She's sure not to know, but the bet is quickly settled - a knife cuts the foetus from the woman's uterus, and it falls to the ground, the gender obvious, and the winners collect their spoils, perhaps a round of beer at the bar. In Serbia, a group of Bosniak prisoners are being transported on a bus - they are all women; the men are dead. When the bus stops, some of the women, roughly between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, get off the bus and are taken into the forest, to return some minutes later - it's estimated a third of women in this demographic suffered such a fate some, no doubt, more than once. In Rwanda, a child is held in front of his parents; first one of his arms is cut off, then the other; then one of his legs, then the other; until finally his throat is lit until he bleeds out slowly on the ground. In Iraq, Marines storm a family's house; one of them rapes the family's fourteen year-old daughter, and they are killed so there is no evidence. In Nanking, a father is forced to rape his daughter, a son his mother. These are the stories of war, not confined to any time or culture but present throught history stretching back, no doubt, to before event were written down - anyone who romanticises the past should remember this, but so should anyone with an idyll of modernity note that such mass killings and rapes were also present in Georgia's August War. These are acts of bloodlust - of a person surrendering to his desires, to what Freud would have called his Id, or Aristotle his sensitive (animal) soul. We can stand horrified, but we can't really grasp, can't understand the mind of the killer for, more often that not, at such a moment it is blank. The Holocaust contains no evidence of this surrender.

The Holocaust isn't the mass murder of a conquering army against its enemies; it's the extension to its absolute extreme of the police state. In an invasion, the victims are, in a sense, irrelevant to the atrocities - the women raped by the conquerors have no identity as particular women, but merely as objects of desire, victims of someone else's indifference to their status as human beings. Similarly, the torturers of Rwanda or the Congo torture merely for sport - there's no higher purpose than their own entertainment, the assuaging of boredom.

The victims of the Holocaust, on the other hand, were the focus - it was the particular Germans who were irrelevant to the deaths. They were part of a system, cogs in the machine - the Reich did not care which bureaucrat passed the final order for a particular day's mass muder, and just as the Germans robbed their victims of identity by means of a tattoo on the arm - precisely the crime the Hall of Names seeks to rectify - the bureaucrat was really just a number to his superiors as well. When his job was done, he went home to his family, not speaking of the glory or the spoils of the battlefield but of his well-finished job as a functionary; of the small duty he had performed for the fatherland. This is typical of the police state - the institutions target particular victims and tell their operatives to carry them out. This is not the will of men lustful for blood set free on a population, but the specific persecution, person by person, of a group of perceived enemies. Its parallel is not in Iraq's gassing of its Kurds but in the Shah of Iran's treatments of dissidents - torture of the most brutal kind by his notorious Savak secret police. We fear it so because its methods - the signed form, in triplicate, the approval from above, the duty well performed as part of a day's work - are so similar to our own. We fear it because even if we have not heard of the Milgram experiment or read The Lottery, a part of us knows their implications might be true of us as well.

One need only compare the vivisection of the Congolese woman above with those of the victims of Dr. Mengele at the concentration camps. No one in the latter was tortured without a stated purpose; Mengele did not do his work for the sheer thrill of it, although there must have been a part of him, a large part, that felt one. There was always a scientific purpose, always a theory to be tested, always a case number to be filed and a conclusion to be reached. The mind was that of a rational scientist - the victims were selected according to specific criteria. Their bones were broken to test how best to reset them. They were frozen to see how best to save Germans on the disastrous Russian front. I don't visualise Mengele standing over one of his victims enjoying the pure thrill of another person's suffering; I see him focused, looking from his clipboard to the thermometer, taking down notes as if the patient were merely a series of input and outputs, behaviourism in it coldest, most distilled scientific form.

Admittedly, the Jews suffered this kind of treatment, but such spontaneous beatings and rapes were usually committed by anti-Semitic elements in the conquered countries - by Ukranians, Lithuanians and Poles, among others - and not by the Germans themselves. The Germans kept accurate tallies of their victims. The guards took everything from the victims of the camp furnaces so it could be put to use and not wasted along with its former owners; the prisoners were similarly worked to death so that the resource of their labour could be exploited to the full. This was not a mad army of violent men rampaging and sewing terror, as were the mongrel hordes; these were bureaucrats and hierarchical offers meeting quotas, claiming expenses, buying and selling. A precious Torah scroll was sold for leather - but only after the Germans confirmed that the writing could be wiped off. The trains that carried prisoners to their deaths were labelled Auschwitz - Warsaw/Warsaw - Auschwitz so that people would believe that a return trip existed, and each train had a detailed bill of lading of its human cargo. Everything was thought through, and everything came down a strict heirarchy. Had it happened 60 years later, the surviving documentation would be a Powerpoint presentation. We fear it because we know that our solutions to problems at the office look a lot like the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

As I left the memorial, I watched a woman walk out of it as well. She walked a few steps and then paused a moment, letting out a long deep breath. It was a moment of release, and of relief. She had experienced an intense empathy for the victims, had no doubt nearly cried at some of their stories, but after that moment, she was free of it. She could think about what to eat for dinner that night, the annoyingly cramped bus her tour group used to take her back to her hotel. Why are we capable of so easily reverting to the day-to-day minutiae of our lives? Is our only coping mechanism for horror on this scale a kind of indifference? I see a German officer returning to his family in Berlin. He walks towards the step of his house, but before he reaches the steps, he lets out a deep breath. Over dinner, he tells his family how well he has done for the Reich; he has even exceeded his quotas - his wife doesn't ask of what. He reads his daughter a bedtime story, and kisses her good night, perhaps for the first time in weeks. She loves him; his wife does too. The disconnect is profound; we fear it because we know we are capable of it as well.

Jerusalem, Israel Il

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