By MICHAEL HARDY
You lie in bed, restless, unable to sleep. Outside you hear the clatter of booted feet and the rumble of trucks, the everpresent sounds of the Nazi occupation. The warm breeze rustling your curtains does little to ease the constant anxiety you feel. As a Jew living in occupied Denmark, you could be arrested at any moment and sent to one of their camps, and that awareness makes restful sleep all but impossible. You finally settle into an uneasy doze through sheer exhaustion, but you never fully rest.
By day you move cautiously in your own city, watchful of the uniformed men with guns. Any sense of security vanished when they arrived, and your once-safe home feels like an endless series of snares. Say the wrong thing, look at the wrong man and you could be gone. Or do nothing at all and it could still happen.
One night, it does. A harsh pounding at your door is followed almost immediately by men breaking it open, pulling you from your bed. The men wear the jagged double-S insignia of the schutz staffel pinned to their lapels.
They take you first to be processed, pushing you roughly into a line of others rounded up in the previous night’s raids.
Then they herd you onto a box car filled with other prisoners, crammed together, 100 or more in a car made for 40. Once it is full, there is no room to sit or lie down; everyone stands, even the old and crippled, because that is all they can do. The guards close and lock the doors and the car quickly becomes an airless oven, the sun beating mercilessly on its metal shell, most of the ventilation blocked.
The old, rattly train pulls away from the station. It lurches and shakes as it gathers speed, the huddled mass of humanity moving as one with every shift.
After a few hours, you feel the need to urinate. There is a bucket near the center of the car that appears to be serving as a chamber pot. You resist your need for some time, for hours, but eventually it becomes too strong. In what will be just the first of many humiliations, you relieve yourself in full view of the other prisoners, because you have no other choice.
No one is coming to empty the bucket. The train car is sealed tight to prevent escape attempts, so no one inside can dump it out. It soon overflows, and the overpowering stench of human waste will fill your nostrils for the rest of the journey. It is perhaps just as well you are rarely given food; it is not as though you could eat it anyway.
You also get no water. Some of the prisoners drink their own urine, or lick the sweat from the skin of others crowded around. Some days into the journey the train stops at a station and prisoners are allowed a few moments outside of the car, under heavy guard. You see the German Red Cross workers and ask for water, but they turn away from you.
Meanwhile, other prisoners are ordered to remove the bodies of those who have died along the way. Their bodies are tossed into the last car on the train, which has been left empty just for this purpose, as if they were bags of trash.
After what seems like a hellish eternity, the train arrives at Auschwitz. The SS troops open up the cars and order the prisoners out. Then they work through the crowd, separating out many of the women, almost all of the children younger than 15, and the old, the sick, the wounded. The ones who are of no value as slave labor, the ones the Germans call useless mouths. Those are ordered directly into the gas chambers to die.
You are roughly shoved into the intake line. An SS officer orders you to strip naked, in full view of everyone, and be searched. Another shaves your head and body hair. A third tattoos a number onto your arm. You no longer have a name, here in the camp; you are just this number.
Now you move into the day to day experience of the camps. You are pressed into labor by day, sleep in overcrowded barracks at night. When someone falls ill, or is simply unable to keep up the pace the guards demand, he will probably be shot on the spot. Perhaps, if the guards feel sporting, they’ll give the prisoner a chance to outrun their attack dogs, which no one can do. You witness countless acts of brutality. Beatings, sadistic games to amuse the guards, and summary executions for any reason or none. None of the SS officers seem troubled by this; most seem to find it entertaining and justified. You are told you should be ashamed of your Jewish ancestry and religion, and that anything they do to Jewish pigs is deserved.
Among the prisoners you meet are two teenaged girls and their mother. You learn that they spent several years in hiding, after the Nazis overran the Netherlands. They had moved there when the Nazi party took power in Germany in 1933. The father, Otto, was taken from the rest of his family when the train arrived at Auschwitz, but he had built a thriving spice-import business near Amsterdam before the occupation.
The younger daughter, named Anne, had turned 15 not long before they were captured, which is probably all that spared her from being gassed on arrival.
Now she displays strength and courage most of the time, letting her fear and sadness show only every now and then. She carries out the hard work in the camp, not knowing whether her father is alive or dead, not knowing how long this ordeal will last. Her confident, gregarious nature serves her well, allowing her to obtain extra bread rations for her family.
The hard work and unsanitary conditions take their toll though, and eventually the teenagers develop scabies, red welts developing on their skin as the infection spreads. They are moved to an infirmary which makes a mockery of the name, where they lie on bunks in a dark room, rats and mice running rampant, and receive little in the way of actual medical care. The girls’ mother begins to save her rations for her daughters, sneaking them through a hole in the wall and going without food herself.
In October, Anne, her sister and other Auschwitz prisoners are transferred to Bergen-Belsen. The Belsen camp had been used for several purposes during the course of the war, but by this time a portion of it has been set aside for prisoners from other camps who have become too sick to work. Ostensibly, they are to go to Belsen to recover and then return or be sent elsewhere to continue their slave labor. In reality they are left untreated, to wither and, if they die, no one cares much.
Anne and her sister linger here, becoming sicker, until they both die in March 1945; their exact cause of death is never determined, but most likely they succumbed to the typhus epidemic that swept the camp that spring. Just one month later, as the war is coming to a close, the British liberate Bergen-Belsen.
When the allied troops enter the camp, they feel they are walking into hell. Thousands and thousands of unburied dead bodies—more than 13,000—and 60,000 still alive, sick and starving. They have had no food or fresh water for several days, and typhus is running unchecked. Another 500 die each day, even after liberation, from the epidemic.
The BBC’s Richard Dimbleby who accompanies the troops liberating the camp, describes it like this:
…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
It is in this nightmare that Anne spends her final days, growing sick, growing weak, believing her father is already dead, not knowing that her mother died of starvation back in Auschwitz. Anne grows sicker and sicker, and fades from life, to be buried in a mass grave with other victims, with no care or regard for the human being she was.
Anne was always a writer, and wanted to grow up to write for a living. She kept a record of her experiences with her family in hiding. You know it as The Diary of a Young Girl, or The Diary of Anne Frank.
Now, she writes this while in hiding, not yet discovered, not yet arrested, not yet witness to the mass murder of children, not yet taken from her father, not yet stripped naked, not yet tattooed with a dehumanizing number, not yet forced into hard labor, not yet sick, not yet weak, not yet dying amid thousands of unburied corpses. So perhaps you can dismiss the words of her diary as coming from a place of relative innocence, for while she must be aware these things are occurring, and she knows her family fled their homeland specifically to escape, she has not yet experienced them firsthand.
And yet, it still is certainly striking to read her words: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Ultimately, Otto Frank is the only person to survive the war. It is he who receives Anne’s diary and loose notes from one of the people who aided them in their hideout. It is he who reads the writings, assembles them and, with help, finds a publisher for them. He gives Anne what she had long wanted, a book published under her name.
We all know how this horrific story ends. More than six million Jews dead in Hitler’s camps, along with communists, homosexuals and others made scapegoats by Nazi ideology. How could this have happened? Over the decades since then there have many theories, but whatever the cause, it remains the case that the nation brought the Nazis to power, and that thousands of people in Hitler’s military and police forces were willing, even enthusiastic, participants in unspeakable brutality. Many later said they were just following orders.
It’s only human. It’s human nature. Boys will be boys. And so on. How many times do we hear these phrases offered as an explanation, or an excuse, or bad behavior? What we often think of as “human nature” is characterized by weakness, self-centeredness and greed. As the song we just heard says, a man can earn millions playing a game, while people starve across the world. Or, people wage prolonged, bloody war over religious beliefs.
We humans do things that harm others to our own benefit – sometimes even to a monstrous degree, as Anne Frank witnessed. But why?
This is a question that confronts and challenges religious belief, and religions have come up with a variety of answers.
As Judaism sees it, we do evil things because God created us with the capacity for good and evil, and the freedom to make our own choices. There is no concept of “original sin” in Judaism, only mankind’s own propensity for corruption. But that propensity is pretty thorough in Jewish thought. The prophet Jeremiah thundered, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Christian theology in the West – that is, the Roman Catholic Church and most of the Protestant churches that grew from the reformation – trace our sinful nature to the rebellion and Adam and Eve. The doctrine of original sin, which was largely developed by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, holds that each person inherits from Adam and Eve not just the proclivity to sin, but the actual guilt of sin. According to Augustine, we are born in sin, deserving of God’s wrath from the first breath we take. This is why the practice of infant baptism developed in the church.
The Eastern branch of Christianity – the Orthodox church in Greece, Russia and elsewhere — was not influenced by Augustine until quite late. To Orthodox Christians, we all inherit the consequence of that first sin – death – but NOT its guilt.
The common thread in the Abrahamic religions is that our propensity to evil is something inborn. Whether it was created by God as an intentional part of being human, or merely allowed by God and inherited from Adam and Eve (or their metaphorical equivalents), it is part of who we are. These religions are dualistic, binary. There is good and there is evil, opposite poles, represented respectively by God and by a devil.
To the East, Buddhism sees it somewhat differently. Buddhism, I admit, is a complex and varied set of traditions that I don’t know a whole lot about. But from what I have gleaned, Buddhism says there are evil actions, which we should seek to block, preventing harm from coming to anyone; but there is no absolute, unchangeable force of evil in the world. Evil stems from human choice, suffering may come from natural forces, but none of it comes from a larger cosmic entity, whether God or Satan.
Polytheistic religions generally take a different view altogether. Neither man nor god can be counted on to be all good or benevolent. Humans choose to behave with compassion or cruelty, with selfishness or generosity, because we have the capacity for both. Suffering may come through coincidence or divine displeasure, but the narrative of a fall from grace and future redemption is largely absent.
Having said all that, I would suggest that the important question is not so much where evil comes from or why it exists, but how should we live in the reality that it does exist. Do we shrug it off as “only human?” Or do we work to combat it, in others and in ourselves?
Not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Buddhist named David Loy wrote these words:
“When Bush says he wants to rid the world of evil, alarm bells go off in my mind, because that is what Hitler and Stalin also wanted to do. I’m not defending either of those evil-doers, just explaining what they were trying to do. What was the problem with Jews that required a final solution? The earth could be made pure for the Aryan race only by exterminating the Jews, the impure vermin who contaminated it. Stalin needed to exterminate well-to-do Russian peasants to establish his ideal society of collective farmers. Both were trying to perfect this world by eliminating its impurities. The world could be made good only by destroying its evil elements. Paradoxically, then, one of the main causes of evil in this world has been human attempts to eradicate evil.”
What does it even mean? Surely, human nature is a complex thing, not a single set of behaviors. It can be destructive, addictive, violent, selfish or narrow-minded. But it can also be constructive, liberating, peaceful, generous or accepting.
Perhaps all of these things, the good and the bad, are part of what we call human nature. I think they are. Human beings are capable of great monstrosity and great compassion, or as is much more common, ordinary monstrosity and ordinary compassion. The utter depravity of Hitler’s SS is shocking in its extremity, but on a day to day scale, we also have an endless series of opportunities to choose help or harm, compassion or judgment.
Another snapshot of the past. It is 1940, Auschwitz. A few years before Otto Frank’s family was brought here. A man named Maximillian Kolbe arrives on the train. He is a Catholic priest, arrested at a small monastery outside Warsaw.
Simply being Catholic would be crime enough for the Nazis to bring him here, but Kolbe has a more specific crime. He sheltered and hid Jews at his monastery, helping more than 2,000 people elude capture.
It did not take the Nazis long to discover this affront to their regime. They arrest Kolbe in February 1941. They imprison him first in Warsaw, moving him to Auschwitz in May. Here he undergoes the ordeals that face every victim of the concentration camps, until July.
In that month, three prisoners manage to escape. In retaliation, the Nazis pick 10 men to be starved to death in a bunker, to serve as a deterrent to anyone else who might be thinking of escape. One of the men cries for mercy, begging on behalf of his wife and children. Kolbe steps forward, volunteering to take the man’s place, knowing it means his death.
Kolbe lives two more weeks in the bunker with the other chosen victims. While the prisoners die one by one of starvation and dehydration, he celebrates mass and sings hymns. Whenever the guards check on him they find him either kneeling in prayer or standing calmly, undisturbed. When he is the last one alive, the Nazis speed his death with an injection of carbolic acid.
The man whom Kolbe spared is Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Roman Catholic himself, and a Polish Army sergeant who had been captured when the Nazis overran Warsaw. After Kolbe’s sacrifice, Gajowniczech remains a prisoner until the end of the war. Then he is reunited with his wife, but learns his two sons died during a bombing raid. He dies in 1995, aged 93.
What Kolbe did, giving his life for another, is also only human. We usually use that phrase as an excuse or explanation for weakness. We went along with the bully in harassing the misfit child. We indulged ourselves rather than aid someone else with our resources. It’s human nature, we say. It’s only human.
But we could just as easily say that Maximillian Kolbe gave up his life, that Martin Luther King exposed himself to hatred and took an assassin’s bullet, because of human nature. That too is only human.
Let us not grow so resigned to our failures and weaknesses that we see generosity, compassion or self-sacrifice as some kind of aberration. Those acts are noble, yes, but they need not be seen as heroic or exceptional. As easily as we can choose to serve our own ends at the expense, or even direct harm, of others, so we can choose a different course.
Fanatics hijack a plane and crash it into a high-rise building. It’s only human.
Firefighters race up the stairs of that building, risking their own lives, to rescue any survivors that they can. It’s only human.
A CEO lays off hundreds of employees to trim expenses and earns a multi-million dollar bonus for doing so. It’s only human.
A woman gives up her own high-paying job to become a nurse, or a teacher, because she wants to have a more direct and positive effect on the lives of others. It’s only human.
A Louisiana politician named David Duke argues that we need laws against rape only because black men “are basically primitive animals.” It’s only human.
An Alabama lawyer named Morris Dees starts the Southern Poverty Law Center to help victims of racially-motivated violence, enduring death threats and attacks from those who oppose him. It’s only human.
Everything we do, every choice we make, is only human. All manner of things are part of our range of options. We have it in our power to choose the good and reject the bad. We have it equally in our power to do the opposite.
Was Anne Frank a naïve child, or was she correct? “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”