Thursday, June 4, 2020
Lessons about Good and Evil from a Concentration Camp
The tensions created by the presence of good and evil can be seen within all humans and in all groups – from the highest to the lowest. Even at the bottom of the abyss, they are clearly exposed and laid open in the horrible conditions that exist in concentration camps.
Look for the appearances of good and evil in the stories below. Who is doing them to whom? Identify the relationships between them. How do those not directly involved react? The following stories are told by prisoners who were there. The first three stories are told by Witold Pilecki, a Polish man who volunteered for an audacious mission – to assume a fake identity, intentionally get captured and sent to Auschwitz. At that time he was a thirty-nine-year-old Polish resistance fighter – and he is not Jewish.
“On either side of the entrance into Auschwitz, newly arriving prisoners walked past a line of German SS guards, who were often smoking and laughing among themselves. On this day, they ordered a prisoner to run over to a fence post beside the path. The man, confused, staggered off only for the guards to gun him down. The column of prisoners came to a halt, and the guards dragged out ten more men from the crowd and shot them, too. “Collective responsibility for the escape,” one of the SS guards announced.
New prisoners that made it past the German SS soldiers were led into a brightly lit parade ground surrounded by rows of brick barracks, the windows unbarred and dark. A line of men in striped denims, wearing blazers with the word KAPO on their arms were waiting for them. The kapos were also prisoners, but they were supervisors over other prisoners – and they carried clubs.
One of the kapos ordered the new prisoners to fall into ranks, where they relieved them of their watches, rings, and other valuables. Next, a kapo randomly selected a prisoner and asked what his profession was. “A judge,” the man replied. The kapo gave a cry of triumph and struck him to the ground with his club. Other kapos immediately joined in striking at the man’s head, his body, his crotch, until all that was left of the prisoner was a bloody pulp on the floor. The first kapo, his uniform splattered with man’s blood, turned to the other prisoners and shouted, “This is Auschwitz Concentration Camp, my dear sirs.” Then the other kapos began singling out doctors, lawyers, professors, and Jews to give them their first of many beatings.
Implicit in and from the tortured prose of Witold emerges a recognition that the horrors of the camp might never be comprehensible -- even to a prisoner like himself who had suffered within its walls. There is a sense that Witold’s orientation had shifted in the passages below. No longer does he feel the need to make his readers understand “an evil that defied comprehension.” Instead he asks them to look within themselves for that which they could share with those who suffer. “I have listened to many confessions of my friends before their deaths. They all reacted in the same unexpected manner. They regretted they hadn’t given enough to other people, of their hearts, of the truth . . . the only thing that remained after them on Earth, the only thing that was positive and had a lasting value, was what they could give of themselves to others.”
The next two stories are told by Viktor Frankl. Three young Hungarian Jews hid the SS Commander in charge of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in the woods. Then they went to the commandant of the American Forces who had just liberated the camp and told him they would only tell him where the man was hidden if the American promised that absolutely no harm would come to the German Commander. It took a while, but the American finally promised and they took him to the man.
Why would three former prisoners of Auschwitz, who were also Jewish, do anything for that man? A fellow prisoner, who was also a doctor in the camp, told them something no one else knew. “The SS Commander had paid no small sum of money from his own pocket in order to purchase medicines for his prisoners from the nearest market town.1 His actions saved lives, some of whom were Jewish.
From the stories above, it is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing.
Human kindness can be found in all groups,
even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.
The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences. On the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards.
I remember how one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human something which this man also gave to me — the word and look which accompanied the bread.
I want to end by focusing on the words of Frankl -- it is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. However when we consider the fact that everyone at Auschwitz belonged to one or more groups – and members held expectations about how are supposed to behave -- profound lessons about good and evil emerge.
Take another look at the stories above. Identify the people that did good or evil acts. Identify the groups to which they belonged. How would their acts of good or evil be viewed in light of “membership expectations”? How would the person have been viewed if he had not behaved that way? See what thoughts about good and evil emerge as you explore the above questions.
I will share what I saw when I did that exercise in next email. I would like to hear yours too. CLICK HERE to share them with me. Thank you for reading this. Please share and discuss it with others.
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* SOURCES & RECOMMENDED READING
● The Volunteer: One Man, An Underground Army, And the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather © 2019; HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
● Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl © 2006; Beacon Press; Boston MA.
● Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen; © 1996; Random House, Inc., New York.