FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Lesson of Auschwitz

At the main entrance of the Nazi camp at Auschwitz one could read: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free). The current trial of Reinhold Hanning, 94, a former SS guard at the camp, brings to mind one of the saddest ironies in that most tragic place. He is being tried in the court city of Detmold, in western Germany, for his complicity in the death of 170,000 people, when he was just over 20 years old. Hanning is not charged with having directly participated in the killings in the camp but prosecutors accuse him of facilitating the murders in his capacity as a guard.

Hanning had been urged by his stepmother to join the SS. He was sent to France and then to the east in the war front. After he was injured in Kiev, and having been rejected twice his request to rejoin the front, he was sent as an internal service officer to Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most infamous death camps constructed by the Nazis.

Concentration camps had existed in Germany since 1933, as detention centers for Jews, political prisoners and what were perceived as enemies of the Nazi state. Death camps, however, were built for the sole purpose of killing Jews and other people the Nazi regime considered as “undesirables”. That group included artists, educators, homosexuals, communists, Gypsies, and those mentally or physically handicapped who were considered unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.

Auschwitz had started its operations in 1940 and its first commandant was Rudolf Hess, who had previously help run the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. When the Soviet army entered Krakow in 1945, the Germans ordered that the camp be abandoned. It was the end of an inconceivable cycle of death. Mounds of corpses, hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing, and seven tons of human hair littered the camp.

It is estimated that between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, died in that inferno. More people died in that camp than the British and the Americans lost in the course of the war. Physically, Auschwitz began in 1940 and ended in 1945. Morally, however, it did not.

It is in this context that Hanning’s actions took place. “People were shot, gassed and burned. I could see how corpses were taken back and forth or moved out,” admitted Hanning to the court. While seated in a wheelchair, he said that he regretted being part of a “criminal organization” that had killed so many and caused so much suffering. “I’m ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it,” he said, his voice broken by emotion.

If it weren’t so tragic, his testimony could be moving. In a statement read by his lawyer he said, “I have remained silent for a long time. I have remained silent all my life. I’ve tried to repress this period for my whole life. Auschwitz was a nightmare; I wish I had never been there….I could smell burning bodies; I knew corpses were being burned.”

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schwarzbaum, who had lost 35 members of his family in that camp gave evidence in the trial against Hanning. He said that he remained haunted by his experiences in the camp and described Hanning as “cruel and sadistic”. Schwarzbaum said, “The older I get, the more time I have to think about what happened. I am nearly 95 years old and I still often have nightmares about this.”

But the most remarkable part of Schwarzbaum’s testimony is when he declared before entering the court, “I’ll look into his eyes and see if he is honest, because the truth is what is most important. I don’t want revenge; I don’t want him tormented in prison. He is just an old man like me.”

Having lived the loss of three of my wife’s young cousins, who were murdered by the Argentine military during the 1970s (we were never able to learn the exact date), I couldn’t but marvel at his words. That despite all his personal suffering, Schwarzbaum would put truth and justice before his desire for revenge was for me Auschwitz’s greatest lesson.

More articles by:

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is still wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Robert Koehler
The Nuclear Status Quo
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
June 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Divest From the Business of Incarceration
W. T. Whitney
Angola in Louisiana: Proving Ground for Racialized Capitalism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail