Remembering the ‘banality of evil’

Posted 1/31/20

Betwixt and between all the compelling news of the last week — the big (impeachment trial, coronavirus, etc.) and the very bad (Kobe, the rapid spread of said coronavirus) — there was something …

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Remembering the ‘banality of evil’

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Betwixt and between all the compelling news of the last week — the big (impeachment trial, coronavirus, etc.) and the very bad (Kobe, the rapid spread of said coronavirus) — there was something that, in my mind at least, drew scant attention: the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading about man’s inhumane treatment of his fellow man...mostly to try to understand the “why” of world history, which is certainly replete with inhumanity. At some point 25 or so years ago, for me, that led to an interest in, and later a visit to, Gettysburg — where brother fought brother in the most deadly battle of the Civil War.

Somewhere along the way, that led to learning (through a book or documentary; I can’t recall which) about Auschwitz.

On Jan. 27, 1945, toward the end of World War II, the Russian army liberated the notorious death camp in the southern part of German-controlled Poland. On that day, about 7,500 inmates were found alive and freed; before its liberation, more than a million people — mostly Jews, and mostly by poisonous Zyklon B gas — died in Auschwitz’s associated gas chambers. All told, 1.1 million of the 1.3 million men, women and children transported to Auschwitz from around Nazi-occupied countries and territories died there.

I’ve not been to Auschwitz, but I’ve read plenty about it — including books from survivors Viktor Frankl (author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”) and Elie Wiesel, whose “Night” is also a must-read — in an attempt to try to understand the evil, and the mindset, that allowed it to happen.

It’s still baffling, in one sense, to grasp the Holocaust: how a charismatic but middling-talent artist named Adolf who, after subsisting on crumbs and handouts in his late teens and early 20s in Vienna, transformed himself to become the author of the greatest crime the world has ever known. How another Adolf, a mousy, mild-mannered traveling salesman with the surname of Eichmann — whose chief talent was that he was extremely organized — oversaw “The Final Solution” and once boasted he would “leap laughing into the grave” because of the “extraordinary satisfaction” he had being responsible for the deaths of five million people.

It’s also difficult to grasp the bravery of a middle-aged resistance fighter in Poland named Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to leave his wife and children and get captured in order to be sent to Auschwitz and report back to the world exactly what was happening there. His secret dispatches were so harrowing that the powers that be in Washington, London and in other allied cities in Europe simply didn’t believe them. That they, and Pilecki, were ignored enabled Hitler and Eichmann to generate that horrific death toll at Auschwitz. (Pilecki’s story is compellingly told in the recently-published book “The Volunteer,” by Jack Fairweather, which I devoured in two days around Christmas.)

My wife Lee Ann and I are visiting Ukrainian friends in Poland this fall, and we hope to fit in a day-trip to Oswiecim, home to most of the Auschwitz camps. Our travels over the past few years have taken us to two other former camps: Austria’s Mauthausen, the notorious labor camp, and the best-preserved of the network of Nazi prison compounds, where some 200,000 people died; and Dachau, the very first of the Nazi camps, located not far from Munich, which was designed initially to hold mostly German political prisoners and intellectuals who dared to question or oppose the Third Reich. Some 30,000 died there. We also spent two hours in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and saw, among other things, original diary pages from what her father Otto later published as a book that would serve as an inspiration and object lesson to millions

Seeing what we’ve seen makes International Holocaust Remembrance Day more relevant to me. Places like Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dauchau and the Anne Frank House exist to remind us of the worst of which we’re capable.

It seems like we don’t remember well. Today, rising hate and increasing anti-Semitism are proof of the dangers of what commentator John Stonestreet this week called “moral chronological snobbery” — thinking that the enlightenment and toleration of modern man simply won’t allow another Auschwitz, another Holocaust.

We all have blind spots. This week’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz not only helps us to remember what Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” — that “terrifyingly normal” people can do horrible things — but also reminds us that we should always, always strive to be so much better than we are.

And to always guard against the evils that hide in plain sight.


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