Holocaust Day
"Die Ermittlung" (The Investigation) by Peter Weiss is one of the most dramatic plays I have ever read. There is no "dramatic license" and no manipulation of facts to tell the story. There is no real climax. And no real conclusion. It is difficult to read. The terror moves forward, pulling, dragging and compelling through each page. At times, it left me sick to my stomach. He weaves together the testimonies of 9 witnesses and 18 defendants taken from the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the 1960s to tell the story of Auschwitz from being loaded into cattle cars to be shipped to the camp, through the selection process and the atrocious living conditions and on toward the gas chambers. Death awaited at every point in the journey.

Perhaps what left me most disturbed and most unsettled were the testimonies of the defendants. They stood at the gates of the camps, reeling at the stench of the cargo they were to unload. (Human beings who could barely walk after hours and days of being stacked in a cattle car with no food, no water and no lavatory facilities. The dead were piled to the side, and the living were in shock.) They pointed their guns, and sorted the first round of survivors. They prodded to keep prisoners working. They sorted the sick and the dying. They shot prisoners. They sent them to the gas chamber.

And yet, I couldn't hate them as I so desperately wanted to. Reading the cold testimonies, I felt a sort of pity. For the first time, I felt a sort of understanding for the Nazi "machine" and an understanding for the perpetrators that defies reason. Defendant 12 summarizes the situation well in Part III of Canto 6 (my translation, punctuation and spacing the same as the original):
Mr. Chairman
I would like to explain something
Every third word in our school time
dealt with those
who were guilty of all
and that must be eradicated
It was hammered into us
that this was the best
for our own people
In the Fuehrer-schools we learned above all
to accept everything silently
When someone asked something else
then it was said
What was done was done according to the law
It helps nothing
that the laws are different today
They said to us
Your job is to learn
You need schooling more than bread
Mr. Chairman
Thinking was taken from us
That was done for us by others
(The accused laugh in agreement)
What happened in Nazi Germany was possible because Hitler had absolute control of the education system. This development was not something which occurred overnight, but instead was the culmination of centuries of centralization. I cannot overemphasize this point. Many speak of Hitler's education law in reference to the current homeschooling situation in Germany, but that makes it seem as if the minor changes he made to existing law were the result of a totalitarian dictatorship. It also makes it seem distant and unrelated to us. What this annoying headline does not consider is that it was the centralized education system which made the totalitarian dictatorship possible. Yes, he outlawed homeschooling and private schools. But essentially all he did was add the weight of enforcement to a previously existing law and outlaw private schools. The change was not dramatic.

January 27 has marked a day of remembrance in Germany since 1996. It has been an international memorial since 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation and the 60th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Lilly Jacob was also liberated, after having suffered in Auschwitz and losing her family. In the abandoned barracks of an SS officer (in another concentration camp 100 miles from Auschwitz), she found a photo album which contained pictures of her family and friends. No one knows exactly why it was kept or what it was for. No one is really sure exactly who took the pictures. But it survives as the only photographic evidence of Jews arriving at Auschwitz and documents the entire selection process except the execution itself.

As you look through the 56 pages and 193 photos documenting this horror, think about what it takes for a nation to commit such an atrocity. This is not the vision of a single, evil man, but the culmination of a thousand tiny steps. Many of which were taken "for the good of the nation."

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