Auschwitz Helferinnen

Why ignorance is the source of our suffering

An interesting post someone in the US shared with me.

‘FROM QUORA – This photo was taken sometime between May and December 1944 (when the bodies of thousands of murdered Hungarian Jews were burned in open fire pits, because the crematoria couldn’t handle these numbers). These people are enjoying a bit of “down time” before going back to work. At Auschwitz.

Not because I think what we’re doing is like what the Nazis were doing in 1944, but because this looks so normal. These people didn’t think of themselves as “evil,” any more than the people chanting at the Trump rally do.

Here’s the point: the Holocaust didn’t drop out of a clear blue sky in 1941. The concentration camps had been operating since 1933.

The first people sent to the camps weren’t Jews at all. It was socialists, communists (remember that if you run across someone who tries to claim the Nazis were actually socialists), Jehovah’s Witnesses (because their faith prevented them from swearing allegiance to the Reich or serving in the military), homosexuals, and other people considered “socially deviant.” The camps weren’t awful places in 1933. Guards who abused prisoners were disciplined and sometimes prosecuted.

By 1935, this changed. As Hitler consolidated power, he pardoned the guards who had been convicted for abusing prisoners and made it clear that that behavior was now acceptable. Jews were now sent to the camps, starting with ones who had come to “civilized” Germany as refugees from pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were described as “invaders,” accused of spreading disease and stealing jobs from Germans. I understand if that last sentence sent a bit of a chill down your spine.

There were dozens, probably hundreds of concentration camps in operation by 1937. Many prisoners died there from abuse or simply from being worked to death, but they still weren’t places people were specifically sent to die; it was just that no one cared whether they died or not.

By 1939, mass killings of Jews had started. Not in the camps; the Nazis weren’t bothering to round people up and transport them just to kill them. They would typically be rounded up by the Nazi army and shot en masse and buried in mass graves.

Mass killings of civilians proved to be bad for morale even for Nazi soldiers, which led to the Final Solution. Eight extermination camps were built and went into operation by 1941. None were in Germany proper, so the scale of what was happening could be more easily kept from the German people. Six were in Poland, one in Serbia, and one in Belarus. Some (like Birkenau, sometimes called Auschwitz II) were on the same site as concentration camps (Auschwitz), and some (like Treblinka) were completely separate. Most were in Poland because that was where the largest number of Jews in Europe lived.

These women worked as typists, telegraph clerks, and secretaries in Auschwitz, and were called Helferinnen, which means ‘helpers.’ Their racial purity had been established—should an officer be looking for a girlfriend or a wife, the Helferinnen were intended to be a “resource.”

The point of these photos is that the Nazis were not all Eichmann and Mengele. Their horror was possible because of the many, many people who went along with what they were doing or at least were willing to look the other way. And it didn’t start with Chelmno and Sobibor. It started with people being willing to vote for Nazis out of fear of the communists and responding to their appeals to “true Germans.”

This photo shows people reading the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker) in 1935. The sign above it reads “The Jews Are Our Misfortune”.

How far, really, are people who would chant “send her back” about an American citizen at a political rally from the people calmly reading that newspaper? Remember, that was still four years before the war, six before the extermination camps. It was when the groundwork for those things was being laid.

Let’s talk about our camps for a moment. Pro Publica recently published a long story about someone who works for the Border Patrol and spent time working at one of the camps. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The Border Patrol agent, a veteran with 13 years on the job, had been assigned to the agency’s detention center in McAllen, Texas, for close to a month when the team of court-appointed lawyers and doctors showed up one day at the end of June.

Taking in the squalor, the stench of unwashed bodies, and the poor health and vacant eyes of the hundreds of children held there, the group members appeared stunned.

Then, their outrage rolled through the facility like a thunderstorm. One lawyer emerged from a conference room clutching her cellphone to her ear, her voice trembling with urgency and frustration. “There’s a crisis down here,” the agent recalled her shouting.

At that moment, the agent, a father of a 2-year-old, realized that something in him had shifted during his weeks in the McAllen center. “I don’t know why she’s shouting,” he remembered thinking. “No one on the other end of the line cares. If they did, this wouldn’t be happening.”

No one on the other end cares. If they did, this wouldn’t be happening. Let that sink in for a moment.

The CBP agent in the story is in his late 30s, a husband and father who served overseas in the military before joining CBP.

It’s kind of like torture in the army. It starts out with just sleep deprivation, then the next guys come in and sleep deprivation is normal, so they ramp it up. Then the next guys ramp it up some more, and then the next guys, until you have full blown torture going on. That becomes the new normal.

This is how it happens. Step by step, we become the monsters. Look around the country. Try to remember how things were in 2012 or so. How many things that are simply accepted now, often with a “what can we do about it?” shrug, would have seemed possible then?

Referring back to the grim conditions inside the Border Patrol holding centers, he said: “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on as normal. That includes the people responsible for fixing the problems.”

“What happened to me in Texas is that I realized I had walled off my emotions so I could do my job without getting hurt,” he said. “I’d see kids crying because they want to see their dads, and I couldn’t console them because I had 500 to 600 other kids to watch over and make sure they’re not getting in trouble. All I could do was make sure they’re physically OK. I couldn’t let them see their fathers because that was against the rules.

“I might not like the rules,” he added. “I might think that what we’re doing wasn’t the correct way to hold children. But what was I going to do? Walk away? What difference would that make to anyone’s life but mine?”

When asked whether he simply stopped caring, he said: “Exactly, to a point that’s kind of dangerous. But once you do, you feel better.”

This man is a father. He watches hundreds of kids. He had to stop caring in order to do his job.

Let’s say that again: he had to stop caring in order to do his job.

Just like, I imagine, the Helferinnen had to stop caring. To look the other way. To learn helplessness against the system.

I know, there are a thousand reasons why we can’t change this. They broke the laws. The President says so. What will we do with all of them if we don’t do this? It will encourage others if we don’t do this.

Know this: those are all justifying inhuman behavior. I’m not saying the people running the camps or the people in the government are Nazis; every historical moment is different. But they’re using many of the same tools the Nazis used. And the same tools are being used against the Uighur in China. And the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Andrea Pitzer is a journalist who has written extensively about the history of concentration camps. Here’s what she had to say on Twitter this morning:

When I went into the Rohingya camps in Myanmar in 2015, I also talked to people in town who were happy their former neighbors were in camps. Insisting they weren’t racist or bigots, many said all they really wanted was for the government to deport the Rohingya to another country.

They claimed the Rohingya were illegal immigrants, rapists, and terrorists. If I mentioned a Rohingya they actually knew, they would sometimes acknowledge maybe *that* Rohingya person wasn’t a criminal. They often argued that the Rohingya should be deported as a group anyway.

It was heartbreaking. I was there just after Trump had declared his candidacy in the US, and it was the same rhetoric, almost word for word. A little over a year later in Myanmar, the military drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya over the border amid terrible atrocities.

Send her back. Send them back. We’re really not racists. Jews will not replace us.

Do you honestly believe it can’t happen here?’

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