I am reading A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal; I first hear about this book by its German title….Ein Gluckskind. I should have included an umlaut over the u…but I can’t figure out how to do this and I don’t want to lose my writer’s pace.
Buergenthal was ten during the Holocaust; by all accounts, even his, he understands that he should have died. At one point, he was selected to die with the other Jewish children still living in his tiny town. But he called out to the SS officer that “Ich kann arbeiten!” I can work. Buergenthal doesn’t know if this statement (spoken in German) or the fact that he was blond were the life-saving elements. Certainly the man to whom he was speaking was not characterized by mercy. After the German officer spared Buergenthal’s life, he took the collection of children to the Jewish cemetery where the children were then murdered–by hand grenades.
I am a third of the way into the book and Buergenthal and his parents have just arrived in Auschwitz. He and his father have been stationed in Camp E, the camp that used to be inhabited by Gypsy families whom had been murdered several hours before the transport carrying Buergenthal and his family arrived at Auschwitz. Upon settling in their barracks, Buergenthal wrote about how several Kapos, Jews who worked as overseers for the Germans, entered the barracks and started calling for a man, Spiegel (mirror in German).
Spiegel came forward, as demanded, and the Kapos immediately began beating him, eventually to the death. When everyone had been in the ghetto, Spiegel had acted as an informant about the men who eventually became Kapos; this caused them to be sent to Auschwitz earlier. Now that Spiegel had arrived, he became the target of the Kapos’ hatred. He was doomed to die not at the hands of the Germans or the Ukrainian guards.
He died at the hands of his own people, at the hands of men who–in an earlier life–had been his friends. Buergenthal even wrote about how, prior to the war–to the invasion–Spiegel and the Kapos had been neighbors of his, had even been considered to be his “‘uncles.'” And now they were a circle of traitors, of killers, of victims.
I reached a point where Buergenthal reflected on how “Had they not ended up in the camps, they probably would have remained decent human beings. What is in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hopes of ensuring their own survival?” (page 71)
This blog post is not intended to be the third part in which I mentally explore how I would have acted during the Holocaust. I have done enough reflection to know that, I think–I hope–I would have gathered up as much courage as I could have and fought it. Somehow…someway.
But as I sit here in my home, ensconced in my favorite chair while the news drones on about more shootings and a child being hit by a car while the person the continued to drive or the children who live in Syria and hide in a school that they know will be hit by a bomb…I still struggle with the proliferation of evil.
Why did that young man go into a Charleston church and shoot nine people? I know the reasons why. I understood the words that were communicated through the media. But I still struggle to understand why a man would walk into a church and then open fire.
I still struggle with how I perceive the Confederate Flag. As a teacher, I have had many students who wore it openly. And they sat with African-American students who said that they didn’t care about the flag because, to them, it was just a combination of colors. But I do associate the flag with a racist past but I don’t associate the students I taught with racism.
I just don’t understand.
And this leads me to understanding why the flag was being flown 150+ years after the war had ended. Was it because of the treatment of the South by the North which, from what I can understand, was not ethical? Was it because this was a celebration of taking a stand? And I know that people say that the Civil War was not about slavery but about “states’ rights” but, from what I can tell, it still seems to come back to slavery.
And this leads to the frustrating knowledge the the North fought to end slavery (good) but was almost as racist if not even more so than the Civil-War-South (bad) which is even more frustrating because the slaves knew they could go to the North to find freedom but they were not going to be treated with humanity. Not even equality. I’m not talking about equality…I’m talking about humanity.
I have said ugly things….things I don’t want to write here because I would rather expunge them from my memory and move forward in my pursuit of being a halfway good person. I have hurt people with my actions. Therefore, please know that I am not innocent of cruelty.
There…you have my disclaimer. I am not standing in my glass house. But I have picked up my stone.
I do not understand the cruelty of ISIS when the organization burned the Jordanian air pilot alive. But to add to the horror, they had to video tape it. And then, if that wasn’t enough, the witnesses were chanting out praises as the man screamed in agony.
I don’t understand.
I understand anger. I don’t understand murderous hatred. For reasons that are unfathomable.
I hate Hitler. I hate the legacy he and his followers have created. But not enough that I would want to kill him. At the same time, I am also a morally confused believer in the death penalty, but only if it is 100% accurate that the crimes were committed by the accused. And only if the accused committed heinous crimes.
Like picking up babies and slamming their heads into the wall (see The Pianist). Or blowing up children with hand grenades (A Lucky Child). Or hanging people because they revolted against a regime of systematic genocide and atrocities against humanity (Night). Or forcing boys to rape their mothers (The Rape of Nanking). Or cutting off hands, arms, feet, noses, ears, legs, any appendage that may or may not have offended (A Long Way Gone).
But then, as I reflect on the lessons that I learned from Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, I am also reminded that he, too, committed atrocities against humanity. And I don’t want him to die because he learned from his mistakes and has been rehabilitated and in his rehabilitated status he is teaching the world about the payment for violence.
And I’m back at the first point of the inability to accept hatred or violence and the never-diminishing bruises that will always sit just underneath the skin.