This Cannot Be True!
Survivor Elie Wiesel looks back at the Auschwitz death factory 60 years later
By Elie Wiesel, reprinted from the LA Times. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate, is a Holocaust survivor and author of 40 books
These days, the world has grown used to seeing pictures and hearing stories of huge, frightening, nature-made or man-made catastrophes from places like Bosnia, Rwanda and South Asia.
But Auschwitz remains a case apart. It is unique.
By its magnitude, Auschwitz will forever remain a burning wound on humankind's memory, if not on God's as well. It represented the ultimate triumph of political fanaticism and ideological hatred.
Those, like myself, who were lucky enough to leave Auschwitz on the forced marches of Jan. 18, 1945, could have shouted with Jeremiah and Job: Cursed be the days such anti-human conduct was born. But we chose not to spend our years cursing, which could have led to hatred. That option was discarded. Hatred is always degrading; it is a cancer that spreads from limb to limb, from person to person, from group to group.
When Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army - 60 years ago tomorrow - I was already in Buchenwald, after a death march in knee-deep snow and a murderous journey on open railway wagons that killed hundreds upon hundreds. But I will always remember Auschwitz; how I was brought there and what happened when I arrived.
Our transport was the last to leave the ghetto in Sighet, then part of Hungary, on May 16, 1944. D-day was still two to three weeks away.
I was 15 when we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination portion of the complex, where the gas chambers were located. What was to become the cruelest event in my life lasted only a few moments. As my father and I marched toward gigantic flames from huge chimneys, a man approached us and said that we were going to be burned. I said to my father: 'This cannot be true; we live in the middle of the 20th century, the civilized world will not remain silent.' But it was true. And the world was silent.
A minute earlier, we had still been together: my father, my mother, my paternal grandmother, my two older sisters, my little sister. Stay together, whispered my mother. For a timeless minute we did, clinging to one another. Until that moment, the entire German army had not been able to tear my little sister away from me. Now one brief command did just that. We were all torn apart before I could kiss my mother goodbye, before I could hug my little sister for the last time.
Since then I have not stopped looking for them.
What made Auschwitz possible? How could a nation known for its culture and education have dreamed up such a place? Why was the outside world indifferent to Jewish suffering and agony? Why hadn't the leaders of the free world told us not to board the trains? Why had no one ever mentioned to us the names of horror such as Treblinka and Maidanek, Sobibor and Belzec, Chelmno and Auschwitz, all death factories destined to implement Hitler's Final Solution? Why was the Vatican still and complacent? Why didn't the Russians come a few days earlier? Why didn't the Allies bomb the railways leading to Birkenau, where, day after day, night after night, 10,000 Jews were murdered in the most brutal ways imaginable?
Most of the questions that I had 60 years ago when I was first released from Buchenwald, and so many others, remain unanswered. I would go further and say: That's how it is, and that's how it must be. Even if there is an answer, I refuse to accept it. Auschwitz is both interrogation and indictment. It represents a watershed in history: There was a before and an after. It represents a challenge to believers and nonbelievers alike.
One cannot conceive of Auschwitz with God or without God. Ever since, all certainties need to be reexamined, all theories reevaluated.
All we know is that Auschwitz did not descend ready-made from heaven. Human beings imagined it, built it, served it, used it against other human beings. When all is said and done, it represents a grave theological challenge to Christianity, an immoral abdication on the part of humankind.
Were the torturers still human beings? Was it human then to be inhuman?
Today, when I think of the guilty, I sense despair. But when I think of the survivors, I strangely discover a compelling promise of hope.
-By Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Laureate, Holocaust Survivor, author of 40 books
It Can't Happen Here
I had a dream last night, a disturbing one. In it, a US Senator was arguing for the criminalization of post-modernist, abstract impressionism (abstract art as expressed primarily through painting and sculpture); another group of Senators were fighting to shut down the channels of free thought and communication on the Internet (it's really happening, not just in my dreams) including emails and personal web sites. The giants AOL-Time Warner and MSN wanted full planetary domain over the information grid.
There was an old Frank Zappa song... 'It Can't Happen Here'... it was about the oppression and subversion of the Truth, and the eventual all-pervasive corruption and pseudo- political tyranny that would stamp out all forms of opposition. And about how it couldn't happen in America.
Yes, Frank. It's happening here.
I just watched a show about a town in California (a town that is relatively close to where I call home) having a rash of child suicides. The reason? The children are gay... never was a word so ill-fitting.
Their parents have abandoned them, thrown them out onto the streets.
One 15-year-old girl had this to say:
"I was on the way home with my parents... we had visited my mom's sister. Her sister is gay, she has been with this other lady for 25 years. My mom looked at me in the car and said that she was way glad that I wasn't a queer like her sister. My dad said that she would burn in hell forever, and that someone should, like, kill her. He said she was an abomination. These people had just finished having a good time at my mom's sister's place; they had had dinner together and everything. Then I thought about a girl I really liked at my school. And I felt like dying."
Senators, 1. People, 0.
In Nazi Germany, music and art were virtually banned. Saxophones were illegal (honest, look it up) and so were the brushes used for drums. Music was considered only a tool for the State to inspire its citizens to march or feel deep patriotism at rallies.
Marching music was legal.
Jazz was illegal in Germany by 1941.
Most of the art, including paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Munch, Goya, and Titian, were hoarded by the Nazi elite. They were not deemed fitting 'people's art'; this was one more way to silence mass opposition to a regime based in fear and death.
Today, it is illegal to burn an American flag; it is considered a 'crime against the State'... Jasper Johns would've been thrown into Guantanamo Bay Prison had he been alive today, doing his famous flag series.
And let us not forget the arch-evil-doers of history (notice, never herstory): the Jews. The recipients and standard-bearers of a thousand injustices, they are collectively equated to Nosferatu (Rosalam, the Devil) incarnate. They are, we are told, the penultimate symbol of all we hate and fear: intellectuality, wealth, art, and music. We are told that all Jews are rich. We are told that most Jews are lawyers.
We are told that all Jews are evil.
When I started wearing my Star and Shin - the Star of David, which I wear on a chain around my neck - I received these comments while on plane-trips to and from various performance dates around the world:
"You killed Christ", a favorite, one that I dismiss by noting the popularity of a recent movie by Mel Gibson.
"You flaunt your wealth (!) by wearing that."
"Do you live in Hollywood?"
And the most common one; "You don't LOOK Jewish."
Honestly, even if my mom hadn't been Jewish, I would still wear this Star. This Star represents my Freedom. It reminds me of where my roots are, what my ancestors survived, and what I must do to prevent it from happening again... and more importantly it reminds me that Freedom is not free; that, at any time, we may be called to lay down our very lives for it, and we must.
When we hear talk of Bush's Pope's refusal to bend on 'articles of moral absolutism' such as the rights of people in The Nations of Islam to believe in their own god, or the rights of Jews to celebrate Passover, or the rights of men and women to shape their own lives and destinies in manners not specifically mentioned in Divine Scripture... we have to ask ourselves...
How much are we willing to give up to the self-appointed overseers of our existence?
Is our new Pope really the mouthpiece for The Only One True God or is he a harbinger of something more terrestrial, more insidious, more devious? In his own words, he admits to joining the Hitler Youth Corps, and justifies it by saying that he took no part in the hostilities.
Why are we so afraid of everything and everyone? Do we really believe that Jews are controlling our minds with 'Hollywood filth'? Do we really believe that the gay people are having meetings and setting agaendas for the conquest of North America's youth? Do we really buy the notion that women are the 'lesser sex' (our new Pope's lofty pronouncement) or do we still believe what we SAY, that ALL are equal under this American Sky?
How did we get so nutty?
So, this is where I get off today. I'm watching Congress, watching our Prez, watching organized religion. I'm not sure I'll be allowed to write words like this for long.
I'm not afraid, though. If somebody kills me while I'm on the road playing the Music I love, well, it'll be a good day to die, and I'll try to do it with some dignity. I'm not a very brave woman, just a very resolute one. And, knowing the Emotional Plague, I'm figuring that most of its constituents are of the mind that women have no power, no opinions, and hence are not very important. But there are anti-blog laws being discussed in Congress, so I should speak my mind before my voice is silenced.
Could that happen here? As the old saying goes, 'is the Pope a Nazi?'
Besides, I'm an old woman, by our cultural standards. Old women have never been taken very seriously. But I don't expect being old to be much comfort or protection against this scourge. Useless old woman: that wasn't the general attitude six thousand years ago, before male gods and patriarchy and steel swords.
And THAT is a whole different story, although one that has direct bearing on this one; but did you know that there was another Holocaust, a Women's Holocaust that killed tens of thousands of us, and swept across Europe and America in the form of religious zealotry, marking most of us as witches, burning us by the wagonload?
Did you know that England, after the slaughter, had to 'send out for take-away' to other countries for women, as few were left to carry on the race? And that still, in China, many many little girl babies are killed at birth, and that their countryside is awash in fat, potbellied, cherubic little male inheritors?
As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, "go put that in your pipe and smoke it."
- JW -1.6.05