April 15, 2018
The author, who is actually in the above picture, said it best in the forward; “Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was.” I think we can all agree with that. But can we, the reader, even understand what happened there? Can modern men and women comprehend that cursed universe?
I’m not entirely sure.
I first read this in my eighth grade History class. I was 13. It changed my life. Before this book my world was sunshine and rainbows. My biggest concern was whether or not a boy named Jason liked me back. I got mad at my mom when she made me go to bed on time, I complained if I didn’t like what we were having for dinner and I argued about what I was and wasn’t allowed to watch on TV.
I thought I knew about WWII. Both of my grandfathers served in it and so my parents wanted to make sure that we understood the sacrifices they made, the things they saw. I watched documentaries about it with my father, the history nerd, listened to the few stories that my grandfathers would tell, but up until that point I had been intentionally sheltered from the horrors of the holocaust. I had only been told in the vaguest terms what had happened, that so many millions of people had been killed, that Hitler and his men had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. My parents wanted to spare me from what exactly that meant until they thought I was mature enough to be able to absorb it.
But then I read this.
And for the first time in my life I was completely self-aware. I felt like a child, like a complete and utter fool. For what were my “problems” compared to those of this narrator? How “hard” was my life compared to what he endured? What millions of people similarly endured? I now understood my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things and suddenly the reality of the world was a crushing weight. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It was dark. It was ugly and unforgiveable.
I remember getting really angry when I finished this. Mostly I was angry at the world and at humanity as a whole but I unfairly turned some of that on my father. After all, he hadn’t prepared me for what I found in this book. At one point I even demanded that he explain this…thing to me.
Fifteen years later, my second read of this book has impacted me just as much as the first. There’s this question I kept asking myself while reading. That question, was ‘How?’. I’m sure that ‘Why?’ might seem the more obvious choice here but I couldn’t let myself wander down the rabbit warren that is that question. Madness lies at the end of it. So I’m left with ‘How?’. How did this happen? How did so many average human beings contribute to this?
How did the SS working in the camps reach the point that they were physically and mentally able to toss live infants into flames?
How were the German girls that lived within smelling distance of Auschwitz able to pass love notes to the soldiers that marched their skeletal prisoners past?
How did these same starving prisoners manage to run 20 kilometers in the freezing snow?
How could the SS officers that shot them if they stopped on the first day of their death march then shout encouragements to them the next?
How could the German citizens near the train tracks throw bread into the prisoners’ cattle cars just to watch them murder each other for it?
How could human beings do these things to each other?
Like my father, I have no answers.
And that, I believe, is why many modern humans will never really be able to comprehend the things that happen in this book. Absorb it, yes. Bear witness to it, yes. Understand it? Hopefully never.
I finished this at lunch today. And now I’m sitting in my cubicle, glancing at my neighbors and wondering if they’re capable of this kind of depravity. Am I? What would I do to survive? Would I beat my own father to death for the bread in his hand? I hope to God that none of us will ever have to find out the answers to these questions.
If you read a single book in your life, this should be it.
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