9 April 2012

Remember When the Whole Street Got Together and Killed the People in Number 37?

The Holocaust holds a fascination for many people. I am one of them. Up until recently this has manifested as an interest in the technical aspects, and in the grisly details, of killing somewhere between 11 and 17 million people; also in the details of life in a concentration camp. These interests are satisfied most fully by Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man and The Truce, and in the testimonials of the members of the Sonderkommando or ‘Special Unit’ – the Jews who were forced to run the gas chambers and crematoria.
In the last week I’ve been reading Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark and this has drawn my attention to an aspect of the Holocaust I’d previously been only peripherally aware of. Previously I had thought of the attempted genocide as something secret, as something a minority of people were aware was occurring, but this is not the case. As early as 1941 the Allies were aware of mass killings of European Jewry. In 1943 there was a meeting between the UK and US to discuss what to do about the extermination camps which aerial photography had revealed. The lack of action from this meeting led Szmul Zygielbojm, leader of the Polish government in exile, to commit suicide in protest.
For the German people though, the holocaust must been an open secret. Estimates put the number of Germans directly involved in the Holocaust at 300,000. The SS had around 900,000 members, all of whom would have been aware of what was happening. Add to this the 1.2 million people working on the railways who would have seen the cattle-cars filled with prisoners rolling past, the thousands of civil servants who would have gained an idea through their day to day work of what was occurring, and finally the average citizen who would have seen Jews rounded up, beaten, often shot as they were deported to ‘the East.’
Add to this the level of knowledge and collaboration in neighbouring states: the Balkans, Romania, Poland, Hungary etc. We are left with a picture of a large percentage of Western Europe rife with anti-Semitism, that watched on, or helped, as the Nazis carried off and killed millions of their neighbours and fellow citizens.
What must this have been like for that generation? The men and women now in their 80s and 90s who have been walking around with this secret for 50 years? The fellow with the beard who you see every week at the bus stop, what did he do? How much did he know? The woman at the pharmacy? The man selling you your car? The others in your retirement home? When you see news of a mass grave discovered in a Polish forest what secret communication passes between you and the other old men at your club? Didn’t Thomas say his regiment was stationed in that area? Did he kill as many as you did?

An insanity of shared experience.