North Shore Notes

Not Very Christmassy

Harry Drabik

By chance I was recently reminded of Auschwitz, the major Nazi extermination and slave labor camp. My interest began at age fifteen when I was easily excited by lurid detail. Camp history gave plenty of that to inflame a boyish mind with wrenching images of mankind’s too frequent inhumanity. Fifteen years later visiting Poland I wanted to see for myself. Thirty years old and reasonably capable, I was not prepared. Miles before I got there the camp began with electric fences and watch towers guarding empty fields. The zone enclosed a collection of “camps.” The two best known, Auschwitz and Birkenau, were simply the largest and most developed in the zone. In this one place nearly half (or approximately four million) of the Holocaust`s victims became smoke and ashes to exist only in the memory of those daring to bear the weight of so much we’d prefer not to remember. Painful memory is not easily borne, but it may be necessary and useful if it is used to remind us of the high cost of looking the other way.

Though I felt the enormity of walking on what amounted to the unmarked grave of millions I needed repeated trips to find details able to bring focus. The wood barracks were built from a design meant to stable a maximum of 80 cavalry horses. Into that same space there were at times 2,000 people crammed worse than beasts. At the camp prison (used for partisans and political prisoners) there was an execution wall where over 20,000 were shot. Imagine one small area where day after day following a phony trial people were brought to that wall to be shot, their twenty thousand names recorded for official purposes. At the nearby gas chambers thousands at a time were exposed to Zyklon B, gas that kills by slow and horrible suffocation. The steady flow of killing generated stores of valises, coats, dresses, eye glasses, and personal effects of all sorts the deportees had when herded onto trains for their trip to The Final Solution. Imagine the piles of material the Allies found on liberating camps. Each pair of glasses and each hair ribbon was worn by a person no longer living. Crutches, false limbs and teeth, coats, hats, dresses, and all other manner of goods were harvested from the no longer living. This was a source of useful war material to be managed by an army of slave laborers temporarily escaping the same fate.
In later years I did a program of slides and narration on Auschwitz. It was, I think, a decent show but one not always welcome by the images it raised or my contention that any bad system (such as Nazism) makes victims of everyone including followers who are no more free to demure or challenge than those flung by droves into gas chambers and ovens. In a bad system the follower gets to live a little longer but without the dignity of his or her free will and moral sense intact. A bad system produces universal victimization. An active victim is no better off as a human being than are his or her victims.
Being reminded of Auschwitz was not very Christmassy, but I was hardly into that reminder when a fresh one was added to it when our interesting friends (Council of Islamic Cooperation, a collection of over 50 theocratic nations) issued its finding that the West had too much freedom of speech. We know that any freedom, including speech, can be abused. The solution, however, is not to restrain freedom, not if you wish to avoid a dictatorship where everyone is victim. Nazis forbidding dissent in Germany was one element that led to the Holocaust. Not enough voices raising alarm outside Germany were another factor. Less speech is more dangerous than too much. The ploy of disguising limits on free speech as a protection for all beliefs is a treacherous lie aimed at protecting that which is most objectionable. This comes into focus when you look at my opening about death camps and realize that the Council voicing concern over free speech does so because its members officially denounce the Holocaust as a hoax perpetrated by Jews and the West. How do Council nations maintain the doctrine that Eisenhower was duped by a fake Dachau and that all the survivors and witnesses are liars? They do so by limiting free speech and by threat of enforcement coming to your door in the night. (These nations often say Freedom of Speech equals Western Terrorism, only minus the suicide vest.) When the aim is to rewrite or deny history that is politics and not religion. Freedom of expression is a prime defense against political or theological dictatorship.
At Christmas time we want to look at a hopeful picture, as well we should. But, I think it is a good reminder not to forget there is a darker side possible in all beliefs. Conviction and dogma can be abused as easily as freedom can. If a “creator” gave humans free will I can hardly think denying that right and imposing artificial human control is theologically laudable, though I will gladly let the religiously learned work on that one. This season, in my understanding, is one to affirm peace and joy. The device of a humble birth sets a human theme and message. We should practice peace and understanding, but in the world around us we need be very aware that not all will agree with that or find it acceptable. They are free to dissent. They are free to worship as they see fit. But those freedoms are not to come at the expense of others. Belief does not convey a right to terrorize or demean. Among the tools of self-defense granted by a “creator” we will find free will and freedom of expression, things to celebrate and cherish with heartfelt appreciation in this or any season.
Happy Holidays to all and to all Peace and Joy.