Please accept my apologies for posting two days in a row. It’s generally not a good thing to do with so many of my talented colleagues able to offer so many great pieces. But I felt a need to write this as I lay awake last night, and realized that April is the month American, British, and other Allied soldiers first discovered the freshly abandoned Nazi death camps. Anwyay, forgive me. If it helps at all, it’s got a pretty different tone.
“One death Is a Tragedy. A Million Deaths Are a Statistic” – Josef Stalin
And certainly, to be fair, the man knew whereof he spoke. Genocide is nothing new. But the scope of the Holocaust, which finally ended 77 year ago this month, proves his point: there’ a point in which the stories become so numerous, the number so overwhelming, it creates an innate distance from the core of our emotions.
But as we bear witness to stomach-twisting sights of sadism from Ukraine, remembering the horrors of the Holocaust and the liberation of those camps in April, 1945, seems especially crucial.
He Who Saves One Life Saves The World Entire – The Talmud
I sometimes think about those first few Allied troops who stumbled upon these death camps and the obscene spectacle they had to behold and absorb while trying to help the poor ragged souls who were somehow still alive.
For these hardened soldiers, who saw, endured, and in some cases inflicted horrors few of us can imagine, this sight was beyond even their capacity to comprehend human cruelty.
I would think the most awful moment that day was when the soldiers happily started handing out food as swiftly as they could to people who had been starved beyond the point of imagination. The soldiers must have allowed themselves an iota of pride as they nourished people who must have seemed to have been all but drained of their humanness. For the skeletal survivors, despite holding the food in their disbelieving hands, this must have felt beyond the scope of their imaginations.
The measure of gratitude both must have felt. At being able to eat, and being able to feed.
“I Must Be Cruel, Only to Be Kind” – William Shakespeare
But then, almost immediately, the soldiers were ordered to take it all back from the newly liberated prisoners. Allied doctors knew these survivors of what would become known as the Holocaust, or Shoah, would die in agony if they ingested solid food in any large amount.
They would have to be slowly reintroduced to nourishment. They were not yet ready to rejoin the habits of the living.
To the confused recipients, given bread only to have it wrenched away a minute later, it must have seemed as cruel a psychological trick as anything the Nazis inflicted. And for the soldiers taking the food back, prying it from hands so skeletal and weak that their resistance in itself must have felt unbearably sad. It may have even made them feel complicit in the evil they had found.
This was hardly the greatest cruelty these prisoners had to endure, of course, but something about that story affects me quite deeply. Perhaps because this historical snapshot takes the Holocaust – an event of such sweeping and sadistic barbarity that will forever be impossible to fully wrap our heads around – and manages to make the enormity of it personal and human-sized.
Or maybe, it is because there are acts of unreasoning hatred and violence so stark in this world, its healing demands a brutal patience almost as cruel.