The Holocaust, derived from the Greek, “Holokauston”, roughly meaning “complete burning”, is remembered as one of the worst atrocities ever committed. It is often quoted as having killed six million Jews. However, some forget that five million others were also lost to the Nazi killing machine, comprising of Romanis, homosexuals, blacks and the disabled, as well as many religious leaders willing to cry out against the oppression being inflicted upon their fellow man. This brings the total to 11 million, a figure of destruction which is almost impossible to comprehend. To put it this way, if we held a funeral for all the victims, listing each of their names one after the other, the ceremony would last three years. But what also makes the extermination of these vulnerable minorities so sickening is the fact that the Hitler’s regime recycled many of their body parts for the German public. They used their hair to make clothes, took their gold teeth for fillings and would sometimes use their bodies to create soap.
When the Allied forces discovered what remained of the death camps and concentration camps, what they saw irrevocably scarred them. The prisoners were so starved of food that when the American and British soldiers tried to feed them with bully beef in an attempt to save them, their digestive systems were so weak it killed them by the thousand, to the bewilderment of the Allied soldiers. Richard Dimbleby visited the Belsen camp which the British soldiers had liberated as a BBC reporter and described the horror that he saw, “Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. . . The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people. . . A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. . . He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life”.
Yet when I had the fortune to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I struggled to connect to the masses that had been ruthlessly tortured and exterminated at these sites. It was a nice sunny day in Poland and though it was clear what cruelty had occurred 70 years ago, Auschwitz I had been turned into a museum, with signs and placards and tour guides telling you where you were and what each building was used for. When I returned home people asked me “Did you cry?” I replied that I had not and at least one person was angered and perhaps confused by this response. I simply could not comprehend the suffering enough to elicit a response – the scale of the suffering was not accessible to my imagination. Indeed, when Primo Levi, the Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor was apparently asked, “Do you understand the Holocaust?” He said, “No I don’t and nor should you.” He believed it was your duty not to understand it, according to writer and intellectual Martin Amis. To understand something is to include it within you, and what happened was so counter-human that any normal human being will reject it. It was a moment in history which is unimaginable for people to understand, even for the people who experienced it.
Image: Ivor Jones