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It was sobering to read in our text,
“(Unlike the others, which were built as extermination camps from the beginning, Auschwitz was originally built as a labor camp, and the extermination facility was added later. This is the main reason that we have so much testimony from Auschwitz; at the other five camps, virtually no one survived to tell the tale.)” Shubert & Goldstein, 2012, p. 156)
Throughout the years I have watched so many documentaries about this and listened to first hand interviews. The first rule of order in the concentration camps was to dehumanize the prisoners. They were transported to the camps via cattle trucks. Many died during the transport because they were packed in so tightly. Upon arrival, prisoners became the numbers that were tattooed on their arms. All evidence of individual personhood was taken away. They were stripped and given prison clothes. Heads were shaved. The daily roll call could take hours and the prisoners had to stand still with their hands on the shoulders in front of them. One woman stated that if anyone moved or fell she was beaten if she was lucky. Otherwise, she went to the gas chamber and crematorium. Men who were not immediately executed were taken to camps and used as labor for the war effort. Death and dying was a part of every day existence in both the women and men’s camps. Dr. Joseph Mengele (2012) conducted experiments that were both criminal and inhumane. Children were often his targets. Helga Weiss wrote a diary during the time she and her mother were in a concentration camp. This diary is now available in English and I fully intend to purchase it. It is a vivid account of her experience from the “Squalid living quarters, the cruel rationing of food, and the executions” (2013).
Life in the ghettos was not really much better as time ensued. Out text relates, “The ghettos were unspeakably overcrowded. In Warsaw, 450,000 Jews were jammed into 1.3 square miles” (2012). A survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Janina Dawidowicz, (2013) describes her experience. She stated that one heard every language there: Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, and German. Survival became the focus as food diminished and people realized they were in a holding pen. Parents would give food to their children knowing no more was coming. Death was a part of living in the ghetto as it was in the concentration camps.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote about Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996). Until I read his narrative, the only easy answer for me per the involvement of German soldiers and citizens was power. I think this fits to a degree. I’ve seen what power does to the conscience and integrity of normal American citizens. I also believe that for the sake of survival people do unbelievable and unimaginable things. Having said that, the Holocaust is something bigger and Mr. Goldhagen goes deeper. He states, “One explanation argues for external compulsion: the perpetrators were coerced. They were left, by the threat of punishment, with no choice but to follow orders. A second explanation conceives of the perpetrators as having simply been blind followers of orders” (1996).
Both of these explanations along with many others given throughout the years beg the question....were the perpetrators all people without a moral code or conscience? Were they all so feebleminded that opposing the killing did not occur to them? Mr. Goldhagen’s conclusion to this is: “That the perpetrators, ordinary Germans, were animated by anti-Semitism, by a particular type of anti-Semitism that led them to conclude the Jews ought to die. Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say “no”.”
Personally, I agree. To me, the answer has always been an easy one. The German soldiers and ordinary citizens participated because they chose to. Period. Collaboration was a key word in the war. The few who stepped up and risked their lives like The White Rose (2012) resistance were few and far between. God bless them for their valiant efforts.
Shubert, A. & Goldstein, R. J. (2012). Twentieth-century Europe. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. p. 156
Whitlock, M. (2012). Warsaw Ghetto: A survivor’s tale. (Janina Dawidowicz). BBC World Service.
Weiss, H. (2013). Helga’s Diary: A young girl’s account of life in a concentration camp. Viking.
Goldhagen, D. J. (1996). Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Excerpted from his book: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.