“Why did Auschwitz happen? Why? I don’t have an answer to that. How, I know.”
— Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor
Fay Waldman survived Auschwitz. She survived because Josef Mengele, the depraved Nazi doctor, decided on her arrival at the concentration camp that she shouldn’t die. “I will never forget his lifting his black-leather gloved hand and pointing which way we should go, to the labour camp or to the death camp,” Waldman said at a Chicago-area Holocaust remembrance in 1985. “I was healthy and went to the labour camp while the rest of my family went the other way.”
THE VICTIMS OF NAZI HATE
The terror at Auschwitz was both systematic and indiscriminate. The Germans murdered 1.1 million people at the extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most of the victims were Jewish. They were gassed, shot or beaten to death. Thousands of inmates survived, though barely, as slave labourers. Some worked in mines or rock quarries. Some sorted the confiscated possessions of others prisoners to be shipped back to Germany. One small group, surely the unluckiest of survivors, was assigned to the Sonderkommando, the unit ordered to move corpses from the gas chambers to the ovens.
There were children at Auschwitz too. Among the murdered and brutalized were sets of twins who became the subject of Mengele’s sadistic medical experiments. Most were killed afterward so their bodies could be dissected. One pair was sewn together as if to create a conjoined set. They died of gangrene. Eva Kor remembered being tied down and stuck with a needle. “They wanted to know how much blood a person can lose and still live,” she said years later.
On Jan. 27, 1945, the madness ended. With Germany in retreat, Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz complex. “We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people,” Ivan Martynushkin, then a 21-year-old lieutenant, told CNN in 2010. “We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell.” The Soviet troops found approximately 7,000 inmates. The Nazis had fled, taking 60,000 prisoners with them. Those who could not keep up were shot.
Fay Waldman of Lincolnwood died in 2015. Eva Kor of Terre Haute, Indiana, died last summer. Soon all the survivors of the German extermination camps will be gone, no longer bearing witness. Their testimonies will live on, though, via museums like the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, documentaries like “Shoah,” books and archives. As long as those stories are shared, the lessons of the Holocaust won’t be forgotten. This is what makes anniversaries crucial to commemorate: They’re opportunities — excuses, if you will — to remember. The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death complex, and the end to World War II. It’s a year filled with reflections.
On the 40th anniversary in 1985, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings visited Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor, to consider the horror of Nazi genocide. Jennings asked a logical question: How could the Jews of Europe have become victims in their own countries? How did they not recognize the German intention to exterminate the Jews? Why did they seemingly submit so easily? Wiesel had taken up this same question in his acclaimed memoir “Night,” in which Moishe the Beadle returned home to warn villagers after he survived a far-off Nazi massacre. No one believed him. His tale was too fantastical. The Jews put trust in a society that reviled them. Many Jews did flee before the war, but many did not.
Weisel told Jennings that the Nazi’s Final Solution was too well-conceived to fail:
“We came from one world into another,” Wiesel said. “The killers killed and the victims died and the sky was blue and bread was bread. It worked. The Germans managed to create, beside creation, another creation. Beside human society another society, a parallel society, and that society was efficient. There were those who lit the fire, those who threw the children in the fire and it worked day after day and we had the feeling that it would never end.”
ACHING QUESTION: ‘WHY?’
Toward the end of his life, Wiesel spent hours in conversation with the Tribune’s Howard Reich for Reich’s book, “The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel.” Wiesel suggested that the Holocaust existed as a paradox: something too terrible to happen that also happened. An inconceivable reality. “Wiesel himself had said many times to me that the scale of this genocide could not be absorbed by the human psyche,” Reich wrote. To put it another way, citing Wiesel: The “How” of the Holocaust is far easier to grasp than the “Why.”
Peter Hayes, a Northwestern University professor emeritus, in his book “Why? Explaining the Holocaust,” wrote that Nazi Germany existed in a feedback loop of hate. The regime of Adolf Hitler created “an ideological echo chamber in which leaders constantly harped on the threat the Jews supposedly constituted and the need for Germans to defend themselves against it.” Again, that better explains how the Holocaust happened than why.
Why Auschwitz? Because the Nazis decided. They identified a religious minority group who were contributors to European society yet outsiders, and declared them to be enemies — vermin to be eradicated because decimating a scapegoat can be advantageous. Six million European Jews died.
Why Auschwitz? There is no logical explanation, so there cannot be a satisfying answer. But the more we reflect on the Holocaust — the more we ask “Why?” — the closer we may come to understanding hate and recognizing inhumanity. Then maybe one day we can eradicate it.