year, I had the opportunity to speak at some length
with two Jewish women who had survived the Holocaust.
the purposes of this, I shall call them Hannah
and Ruth. Actually, Ruth has no personal recollections
of that time. She was born in 1945 in a filthy
coal wagon that was being used to transport her
mother and other Jews between concentration camps.
It was only while growing up that Ruth gradually
learned about the Holocaust and the full extent
of what her mother had to witness and endure.
learnt how, for the first few weeks of her life,
she was kept hidden from the German authorities
in Neuengamme concentration camp. When eventually
rescued by the Allies, both she and her mother
were barely alive.
a much older woman, has first-hand memories aplenty.
As a young girl, she was deported with her family
from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they
were separated and she was later transferred to
Buchenwald as a slave worker. Like countless others,
during her time in the camps she lived every day
knowing that it could well be her last.
all of Hannah's close relatives, including her
mother and father, perished in the gas chambers
at the hands of the Nazis. Both women were agreed
- indeed, acutely aware - that it was only through
sheer good luck that they managed to survive at
and the small kindnesses of strangers - mostly
German strangers. Hannah remembers the occasional
piece of meat, a morsel of fruit or vegetable
and sometimes even a sandwich, left without a
word and at great risk to themselves by a sympathetic
guard or factory worker.
scraps of food could mean the difference between
a prisoner living or dying of starvation. There
were instances when a blind eye was turned to
an indiscretion that would certainly have spelt
death if it had been brought to the attention
of the camp authorities.
the ordinary run of things, these seem like little
more than tiny, inconsequential gestures.
when your life depends on a blind eye being turned
or a scrap of food being left by someone who knows
that, in helping you, they might well be gambling
with their own life, such actions are of monumental
woman shied away from describing the atrocities
committed against the Jews - and many other groups
- or from acknowledging that most Germans who
encountered the prisoners were, at best, unsympathetic.
Hannah is adamant that with so many people being
rounded up and removed from towns and villages
and then transported by rail the length and breadth
of Germany in open wagons, the broad mass of the
German public must have at least suspected that
something terrible was going on. When one considers,
as well, that many of the camps were situated
in close proximity to towns and that gossip must
surely have spread far and wide through soldiers,
camp workers and the like talking to their families
and friends about what they were witnessing, it
is hard to believe that most Germans remained
unaware of precisely what was happening.
all of that, neither woman wanted to stereotype
every last German of that time as being supportive
of, or even acquiescent in, the Nazi atrocities.
pointed out that but for the courage and compassion
of a tiny few who clung tenaciously to their humanity
and refused to become part of the prevailing madness
and brutality, it is highly unlikely that either
would have survived.
Hannah's abiding maxim is, "Never generalise.
And avoid like the plague those that do."
In consciously remembering and drawing attention
to those few vital kindnesses, both have ensured
that they themselves do not fall victim to an
understandable, but ultimately self-destroying,
broader view is that if the circumstances could
be created where such horrors were unleashed and
allowed to run unchecked within a society as civilised
and sophisticated as that of prewar Germany, then
something similar could happen anywhere.
is hard to disagree when one reflects that since
the end of the second World War it has indeed
happened repeatedly in other places, and is happening
still. I, like everyone else, have heard the story
of the Holocaust many times, have read the books
and watched the films and newsreel footage. So,
essentially there was nothing new in what Hannah
or Ruth had to tell me. The profound difference
this time was that I had no emotional escape route.
This was no film or book, it was all too real.
I was listening to and looking into the eyes of
human beings who had actually experienced the
reality of the Holocaust. Through regular occurrence
and (perversely) blanket media coverage, we have
become emotionally, as opposed to intellectually,
detached to some degree from the stark reality
of genocide: even industrial-scale genocide like
easier to switch TV channels than connect emotionally
with what is happening in places like Zimbabwe
and Darfur: that is part of the reason why it
with permission from the author.