Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Inside the Gas Chambers

For the most part news is not a spectator sport. Only small groups of people directly witness major events. The rest of us must trust the media to find out what happened.

As time passes, people begin to agree that certain events were important. They observe the anniversaries, honor the heroes, slander the villains.  Stories are told, songs sung.  Books are written, movies made.  Lessons are learned, courses organized.  Eventually experts arise.  Starting with petty disagreements these experts argue with one another.  They form factions, wage verbal battles, assert opposite interpretations.  They go to court.  Their interpretations morph into articles of faith.

Beliefs have supplanted facts.

And then even more time passes. The important event is eclipsed by other important events. Direct witnesses die off, as do the rest of us. Generations disappear. The event loses relevance and becomes a dusty academic topic.  Professors vainly try to explain to bored students what actually happened and how anyone could have thought it was so special in the first place.

This process is called History.

I recently finished reading a book, the story of a direct witness to important events of history.  These  particular events were monstrously inhuman, the systematic genocide of millions of people.   Inside the Gas Chambers, Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz is an essential read because it is told by a direct witnesses to the Holocaust, one of the few who was made to work inside the Nazi crematoria and survived the war.  This book deserves our attention because, these days, there are certain people (let's call them "experts") who deny that such events ever happened in the first place.

Shlomo Venezia was a Sephardic Jew living in Greece. In 1944 the Nazis deported him to a concentration camp where they systematically murdered in the gas chambers anyone who couldn't work. Venezia was selected for a special unit, the Sonderkommando, whose job it was to move the dead bodies and burn the corpses.

The book takes the form of an interview, with Venezia responding at length to short questions.  His is not an overview of the huge ideology-driven Nazi murder enterprise.  This is not a grand history. Instead Venezia tells his own tale very simply.  He was one of many mice caught in a large trap.
(Question:) What did you see of the gas chamber when you arrived?
I wasn't one of those who had to take the corpses out of the gas chamber, but later on I frequently had to do it.  Those given this task started by pulling the corpses out with their hands, but in a few minutes their hands were dirty and slippery.  In order to avoid touching the bodies directly, they tried using a bit of cloth, but, of course, the cloth in turn became dirty and damp after a few moments.  So people had to make do.  Some tried to drag the bodies along with a belt, but this actually made the work even harder, since they had to keep tying and untying the belt.  Finally, the simplest thing was to use a walking stick under the nape of the neck to pull the bodies along.  You can see it very clearly in one of David Olère's drawings.  There was no shortage of walking sticks, because of all the elderly people who were put to death.  At least this meant we didn't have to drag the corpses with our hands.  And this was hugely important for us.  Not because it was a matter of corpses, though that was bad enough. . . . It was because their death had been anything but gentle.  It was a foul, filthy death, difficult and experienced differently by each of them.
(David Olère was an artist who also survived the Sonderkommando and documented it after the war in drawings such as this one.)

I've never talked about this until now; it's such a weight, it's so heartrending, that I find it difficult to speak of those visions of the gas chamber.  You could find people whose eyes hung out of their sockets because of the struggles the organism had undergone.  Others were bleeding from everywhere, or were soiled by their own excrement, or that of other people.  Because of the effect that their fear and the gas had on them, the victims often evacuated everything they had in their bodies.  Some bodies were all red, others very pale, as everyone reacted differently.  But they had all suffered in death.  People often imagine that the gas was thrown in, and there you were, the victims died.  But what death it was! . . . You found them gripping each other - everyone had desperately sought a little air.  The gas was thrown onto the floor and gave off acid from underneath, so everyone tried to find some air even if each one needed to climb on top of another until the last one died.  I personally think - I can't be sure but I think - that several people died even before the gas was thrown in.  They were crammed in so tightly against one another that the smallest and weakest were inevitably suffocated.  At a certain moment, under that pressure, that anguish, you become selfish and there's only one thing you can think of: how to save yourself.  That was the effect the gas had.  The sight that lay before us when we opened the door was terrible; nobody can even imagine what it was like.
Shlomo Venezia was an eye witness to history.  In the many decades between the events and the interview I expect he forgot some small details.  I would also expect that his overall story is true, corroborated as it is by so many other sources.

However, there are doubters.  These are the "Holocaust Deniers", people who argue that no one died in the Nazi gas chambers.  I didn't have to scour the Internet very long to unearth Bishop Richard Williamson as a good example.  Williamson is a piece of work who spreads notions of hate and conspiracy with an aura of calm logical discourse..

The Bishop believes that no one died in Nazi gas chambers.   He believes that they never existed.   As you listen to him talk, notice his emphasis on his own belief.  He has made this issue not about what actually happened but about what and who he believes.  Religion does that to a guy, I guess.

He supports his beliefs with logical-sounding explanations given by experts.  In the video below he argues that poison gas had to be vented by tall chimneys, but wartime reconnaissance photos show no chimney shadows, so therefore - his experts have concluded and he agrees - there could have been no gas chambers.  This sort of argument, where a small inconsistency is used to undermine a large body of fact, seems very common in denial literature.

This small bit of feeble expertise is enough support for Williamson's beliefs.  He doesn't need much support from facts or logic.  I'm sure he'd find some contradiction in historical memoirs like Shlomo Venezia's.  What this cleric is telling us are his beliefs.  In his mind what he believes is more than sufficiently supported by his fundamentalist religious faith and his amply evident anti-Semitism.

Watch him in action.

I'm not here to debate the details of the Holocaust with people like the Bish.  If you're a friend of his don't bother to leave comments.  I won't publish them.

As time passes, each succeeding generation will have more difficulty distinguishing the facts of the Holocaust from the dogma and obfuscations of the deniers.  The lessons of Nazi inhumanity might fade and the resolve to Never Forget could be slowly lost if the Bishop gets his way.  Such a loss will pave the way for history to repeat itself.  How slowly the loss happens depends on how well the deniers are countered right now.

Here's a quote by Robert McAfee Brown from the preface to Night, Ellie Wiesel's Holocaust survival memoir:
Having confronted the story, we would much prefer to disbelieve, treating it as the product of a diseased mind, perhaps.  And there are those today who - feeding on that wish, and on the anti-Semitism that lurks near the surface of the lives of even cultured people - are trying to persuade the world that the story is not true, urging us to treat it as the product of diseased minds, indeed.  They are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.  Perhaps there is is a greater indignity, it is committed by those who believe them.
Reading books like Inside The Gas Chambers and other first hand accounts of the Holocaust are good ways to fight the ignorance and hatred of people like Richard Williamson and anyone who might believe him.

You can watch and listen to Shlomo Venezia on YouTube (he speaks in Italian, of course.)

Bishop Williamson was excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1988 on a technicality.  Then the Vatican rehabilitated him in 2009.  Later the Pope asked him to recant his views on the Holocaust.  Williamson apologized but didn't admit he was wrong.  Pope Benedict said he should have done an Internet check on Williamson before rehabilitating him.  To its credit, the Catholic church has largely disapproved of Williamson's views.  Here in Los Angeles former Cardinal Mahony banned Williamson from all local Catholic institutions because of his views on the Holocaust.

Read other news stories of Bishop Williamson here.  He was fined by Germany for denying the Holocaust.

Most everything Williamson says in this video about the gas chambers is wrong.  The expert he cites is Fred Leuchter.  The discredited Leuchter was the subject of an excellent movie documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. by Errol Morris.

Williamson's manner and British accent reminded me of Alan Watts, a wise Episcopal priest who spread notions of  Eastern religion to Americans during the fifties and sixties.  The comparison ends there.  Watts' lectures are still very relevant to modern life.

Nazi concentration camps appear in a previous MM article: Ring Festival L.A. Begins

Death is the subject of What Is It Like To Be Dead, one of Mixed Meters' most popular posts.

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