Sunday, September 23, 2007

Down Time From Murder


By ROGER COHEN
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
September 24, 2007

So now we know where Eva from Mannheim and Angela from Dortmund and Irmgard from Dresden ended up during the war years — jiving in pleated skirts to the strains of an accordion, or gorging themselves on blueberries, or lounging on deck chairs in the shadow of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoriums.

How fresh-faced and playful the SS women look in the 116 photographs that, 62 years after the liberation of the Nazi camp, have found their way by a circuitous route to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is not easy to imagine these young ladies moving on from a picnic to administer death wholesale.

In thinking about the Holocaust, we have grown accustomed to images of the Nazis’ victims: shadowy naked figures on the edge of ditches about to be dispatched by the SS-Einsatzgruppen; huddled wide-eyed children; skeletal human simulacra; piles of bones. Getting the perpetrators in focus is harder.

But here, revealed by these newly discovered photographs, are the German murderers in all their dumb humanity, flirting and joking and lighting Christmas trees, as if what awaited them after the frolicking were just the bus to some dull job in a dental office rather than the supervision of Auschwitz’s industrialized killing machine.

If they were downwind of the camp, did some trace of the acrid-sweet stench of death ever mess with the merry-making? Did the image of a Jewish girl from Budapest being herded toward the gas mar a mouthful? Did conscience stir or doubt impinge? Was it clear that the children had to die in order to eradicate not only a people, but also their memory? Such questions are useless. The facts must speak for themselves.

Goethe’s hero Faust declared: “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, and each will wrestle for mastery there.” The light and dark of Germany, the disturbing proximity of civilization and barbarism, speak of that battle and its universal echoes.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the photos (on display at the museum Web site — www.ushmm.org). My years in Germany eroded my capacity for shock. The walk from Buchenwald’s brick-chimneyed crematorium to the genteel streets of Weimar — home to Schiller and Goethe, birthplace of the Bauhaus — is illusion-stripping. In 1942, Buchenwald prisoners were ordered to make wooden boxes to protect Schiller’s work.

Germans, through distinct postwar stages, have engaged in a painful examination of who the people giving and obeying such orders were and how, in Günter Grass’s words, an “entire credulous nation” believed in Santa Claus, but “Santa Claus was really the gasman.”

Just how hard that introspection has been was illustrated when Grass, a moral reference to the Bundesrepublik, broke a 61-year silence and revealed that he served as a 17-year-old in the Waffen SS.

More such revelations are needed; the threads of truth’s tapestry are not all tied. Germans will gaze at these photographs and ask: is that my grandmother or great-aunt? If not, might they have been? Jews and Germans are tied at their hip in their contemplation of the two sides of the crime.

Historians are voyeurs; they like nothing more than reading other people’s mail. They need to pry to put names to these faces of “ordinary Germans” doing their jobs at Auschwitz.

The album was kept by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the camp commandant. Höcker’s father was killed in World War I; his mother struggled. And what of the stories of Eva and Angela and Irmgard? Will any Germans step forward to claim these young women and give them real names rather than those invented here?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote in 1960 of a Germany “overcrowded with absentees,” full of people “who happen to be in this country fleeing from this country.” With the years, Germany has gained confidence, pried open locked drawers, filled some of the absences. But these photos are an invitation to do more.

Inevitably, they pose the question: What would you have done? Filled your mouth with blueberries or balked and paid the mortal price? Perhaps no single question is more important. The voyeur has the luxury of posing it whereas those living then had to answer it. The overwhelming majority acquiesced to the unspeakable.

It has become banal to quote Hannah Arendt. But she encapsulated these photos’ conundrum when she wrote: “Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not,” adding that “Humanly speaking, no more is required and no more can reasonably be asked for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Like Germany’s unfinished but already remarkable postwar voyage from self-amputation to self-realization, these words bear pondering.

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