It’s unclear exactly when, but probably in 1941, Nazi Germans started their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe,” a systematic, industrial mass slaughter.
Germans used their logistical genius and modern weaponry to gather Jewish men, women, and children from countryside villages across the continent, and transport them to urban centers. Jews lost their citizenship, were proclaimed less than human, and forced into poverty.
The Germans herded the weakened survivors of famine and unsanitary conditions into rail cars, without windows, where hundreds of people would be squeezed. Can you imagine, these angry, cursing, yelling men, guns in your face, pushing you into a rail car still smelling faintly of manure and hay, others around you fearful, screaming, crying?
The people crowded in those cars had no idea where they were going. As one survivor said, they expected the worst, but they did not expect the unbelievable.
By the end of World War II, Germans killed six million Jews. In designated killing centers, they murdered 2.7 million. They killed one million at the largest camp, Auschwitz.
When we visited Auschwitz, our tour guide, Anna, flicked her thumb back and forth in front of a large black-and-white photograph of women with scarves tied under their chins, holding the hands of young children who appeared to be in a hurry. “The Nazis did not register the Jews when they arrived at Auschwitz,” she said. “They just made a selection. The young and healthy got life. For the old, sick, and young children, there was death.”
Originally Auschwitz was meant as a camp for Polish prisoners of war. Later, in 1942, Germans began sending Jews there to be killed. If you were one of the people herded into a railway car, with no idea where you were going but only knowing that the strangers sending you there hated you, you would have arrived after perhaps many hours, perhaps many days, standing without food, water, ventilation, or heat with hundreds of others, with no toilet or anywhere to move.
Your train would have gone through a single wooden gate.
It would have pulled up to the dirt track.
The doors would have slid open and you would gulp down the fresh air.
It would have a sickening, thick, sweet smell to it.
There would have been dogs barking. People yelling at you in German.
You would have seen a vast world of orderly barracks surrounded by somber electrified barbed wire. Guarded by vigilant eyes in towers.
You would have been pushed to an uncaring man. If you were older, he would have flicked his thumb right.
You would have been told to run to the queue ahead. Everything would be chaos, fear.
You would have walked in the queue toward the forest, and the smell would have intensified.
You would have been herded down a ramp into a bunker half-buried in the forest floor.
You would have been ordered to take off your clothes, and handed a bar of soap, and a sense of relief would creep over you – finally, a shower.
What could the smell have been inside a gas chamber? Would you have noticed, in the dim light, the scratch marks on the walls?
Two thousand people at a time would be stuffed into the chamber. The gas was nearly odorless but soon the Zyklon B would be sending thousands of needles into your lungs and throughout your body, as you panicked, and ran to the walls, to the door, to escape the pain, the screaming, the pandemonium all around you, the other clammy bodies struggling to live. Dying.
It took about 20 minutes to kill 2,000 people. The doors remained closed for 30 minutes.
Just to be sure.
The doors would open. Jewish prisoners selected to be Sonderkommando would begin their work of pulling the bodies out of the chamber, cutting women’s hair to send to Germany to make textiles, loading the dead onto elevators, and burning their bodies.
Visiting Auschwitz and hearing about the horrors, besides the aversion, the disgust, the brimming tears, the shock, the most salient reaction I had, as a tourist 75 years later, was, “Why? Why? Why? How?”
As Anna said, this was civilized Europe in the 20th century. How could this happen?
People have different theories but no one has a satisfactory answer. I can only imagine that murder came from hatred, and hatred, anger.
Everyone has anger. It’s a signal, a flag. We often see our anger as innocuous – although when we fall victim to someone’s barb, and it hurts, we experience how destructive it can be.
Where is the line between our innocent anger, and the anger than leads to violence?
Looking at the world today, it’s easy to feel despair, and to feel fearful of the future. How can we possibly help people find peace between each other?
We are only responsible for ourselves, and as part of this world, we have a responsibility to keep an eye on our own anger. We cannot indulge in our anger and self-righteously distance ourselves from the anger that breeds violence. There is no difference in the quality of the anger.
We have to be sure that our small slice of this world is healed from our own anger. We have to watch our anger as it arises, and see where its roots are, and pull it out from those roots.
Then we’ve done what we can to make the world a more peaceful place.