Seventy years ago Tuesday, with only 7,000 people still alive behind the fences where over a million human beings had been murdered, Auschwitz saw its liberation. That name, Auschwitz, has become the seminal symbol of the Holocaust, the Nazi killing machine that murdered over seven million people. Auschwitz, once just the place name of a Polish village, is one of history's most tragic words.
CNN will air a documentary, "Voices of Auschwitz," Wednesday night. It will air twice, at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Pacific time. (It was originally scheduled for Tuesday.) The previews are compelling.
Our culture seems to need significant anniversaries to find time to remember anything, or give ourselves permission to focus on any event that shaped our world. Sometimes, those who have economic or political reasons to reinterpret history will attempt to grab the driver's seat on the bandwagon.
There is the reality of the Holocaust and the message we would overlook at our peril. But do we understand why?
Is it even possible for any of us to imagine being systematically worked to death while simultaneously being starved to death?
And to comprehend that it was done to justify robbing us of everything, including our hair to use as insulation in Wehrmacht soldiers' winter field jackets?
And that all of it was done to verify an obscene philosophy that had forcibly put us there, in Auschwitz, not because we had done anything wrong? That we were there because we were supposedly both weak and predatory, as the Nazis asserted about the Jews, or poisonous and corrupting presences, as the Nazis asserted about everyone else who was unlike their contrived model of Aryan supremacy?
We are beneficiaries of all that was done to end that evil. We are inheritors of a world in which it did not prevail. Yet, as children of good fortune, we are prisoners of our modern perspective, seven decades later.
And, as much for a society as for each individual, the unexamined life is not worth living.
The litany of horrors has consumed many volumes and miles of film and videotape.
The medical experiments to which Nazi captors subjected their victims brought physical pain beyond comprehension, disfigurement, and eventually, horrible death.
Even artworks were looted and their owners killed to hide the crimes. In the 21st century, audiences would see that represented in "The Monuments Men."
Famous paintings and sculptures lost to Nazi theft are still reminders, as they continue to be recovered and restored to Europe's museums and survivors of the families whose art collections disappeared along with the people who had proudly displayed them.
In "Schindler's List," one of the most powerful films ever made, we saw that even the people with delicate industrial skills were exploited for a war machine that reviled them, and would have killed them.
And with rare exceptions where humanity quietly and secretly prevailed during the Holocaust, those with esoteric knowledge, those who were learned, those with special skills or talent stood no more chance of surviving Auschwitz than others who dragged the piles of fresh corpses from the gas chambers and fed them to the crematory incinerators.
Multi-part television dramatizations, like "Escape from Sobibor" have told the true stories of some survivors. But most did not survive the determination of a repressed, repressive, and mostly unified totalitarian society to kill them, and to exterminate everyone else who was like them.
Steven Spielberg recently described his first visit to Auschwitz, before he felt what he now refers to as "his calling" to tell the story of the Holocaust in "Schindler's List."
"It had rained, and there were puddles. I was asked to put my hand into the water. When I took it out, my hand was coated. It was the ashes of the victims."
"They're still there," he adds with what seems to be a look into a world beyond, even as he holds back tears.
Spielberg is among the diplomats, luminaries, and aged survivors at Auschwitz to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of that concentration camp / death camp complex where so few were still alive. The Nazis, realizing their army was being pushed back, ordered the killing of everyone still alive in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before running away and seeking anonymity, the guards nearly completed that final order in what Hitler had envisioned as "The Final Solution."
When American and British troops liberated concentration and death camps, General Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, ordered that every soldier who could possibly be routed to the camps must see them.
When American and British troops liberated concentration and death camps, General Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, ordered that every soldier who could possibly be routed to the camps must see them. He understood that it was horror on such an unbelievable scale that denying it would seem reasonable. He wanted history to have too many witnesses to accomodate denial.
"Judgement at Nuremburg" dramatized the trials of the architects and aparatchiks of the Holocaust. Countless books, documentaries and dramatic films have followed. Yet we still see denial, disgusting attempts at justification, and even neo-Nazi revivals in many parts of the world.
In a real sense, Auschwitz stands as a silent statement in opposition to those who espouse bigotry, repression, and darkness.
Auschwitz stands as a memorial to the dead. It stands as a representative of their silenced voices.
Ultimately, it stands, transcending time, as a warning to all of humanity - a warning of the darkness and vicious cruelty that are present in the mind of man, alongside the desire to create and achieve and excel and explore new boundaries. Auschwitz stands as the reminder of humanity's predisposition to consign whatever we do not like about ourselves to anyone else that we can conveniently oppress as our scapegoat, in our daily lives, or as a nation or a society.
Physically, Auschwitz still stands because the Germans built it in territory they had stolen from Poland. We often overlook the fact that Poland as a nation was a re-creation of the early 20th century. Then Poland was, itself, nearly erased in the mad desire for "lebensraum." That's what the Nazis called their plan for taking other people's countries and displacing or killing the indigenous populations so that Germans would be able to settle and Nazify the lands to Germany's east. For Poland, Auschwitz still stands because it is part of Poland's story of being dismembered and robbed and oppressed and murdered.
In the largest sense, Auschwitz stakes its claim on the consciousness of the world with no regard to its physical location. It is impossible to invoke, or consider, or to seek meaning or to draw lessons from Auschwitz without encountering every race, every religion, every continent and nearly every nation.
The words of American philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana (1863-1852) were selected for display alongside the eternal flame at Auschwitz: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
So many famous and some infamous words derive from or are connected to Auschwitz. The cruel cynicism of the sign over its gate, "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "Work Makes You Free."
In the 1990s that horrid phrase "ethnic cleansing" was applied in the Balkans after the collapse of communism; ancient rivalries exploded, genocide ensued, and the specter of Auschwitz was back.
Simultaneously in the '90s when Rwandan genocide became unchecked bloodlust, visions of Auschwitz were present until President Clinton finally intervened to stop it.
In Israel, the phrase, "Never again," is still invoked. Even while the current Israeli government, in defiance of polls demonstrating the wishes of that nation's people, continues to invade areas and establish Jewish settlements in places it has agreed are reserved for Palestinians. There is no place more poignant with the tragic irony of invoking Auschwitz.
There is Somalia. There is Boko Haram. There is ISIL. There are skirmishes and conflicts, kidnappings for ransom, hijackings, piracy, torture and beheadings, murder of educated women, repression of girls who want to go to school, racism, sexism, the madness of "honor killings" of women because they were raped, the oppression of people for their sexual orientation, and there are open, clandestine, denied, de facto, contrived, and desired wars.
There is always someone seeking to invoke universal images of genocide, the Holocaust, Auschwitz, et. al., so they can solicit help against an oppressor, or sell weapons or make money from conflict. There is always a corporatist or an industrialist or a construction worker who wants to make money from conflict, or by intiating ir ending the repression of someone, or from starting or stopping or changing beneficiaries in the exploitation of their resources, or by "keeping us safe" from some threat or other, and their overwrought rhetoric litters the landscape with the name of Hitler like dog poop and cigarette butts.
Our time is a swirling juxtaposition of facts, truthiness, managed images, satirical images, and interpretations of substance, whether or not it exists. Twenty years ago, we subjected ourselves to a televised freak show and were okay with the media calling a celebrity murder case "The Trial of the Century!" Not Nuremburg. Not the trial of the Nazi mass murderers who re-invented murder as industrial-scale mass extermination and operated Auschwitz to do it. Pre-World War II, a more innocent world could perhaps be forgiven for thinking the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case was the Trial of the Century. Or Sacco and Vanzetti. But how anyone could believe the show trial of a retired NFL-player-turned-actor eclipsed Nuremburg with its revelations and recounting of Nazi attrocities at Auschwitz?
So we are handicapped when it comes to assessing history's greatest crimes or recognizing the next one.
Even now, there are monoculture societies where repression is nevertheless the norm, where concentration camps and fear of disappearing into one are daily realities.
Even now, there are monoculture societies where repression is nevertheless the norm, where concentration camps and fear of disappearing into one are daily realities. But we care more when one of them hacks Sony Pictures' website than we care about its starving oppressed citizens or the victims in its gulag.
And there is still Auschwitz itself. The real Auschwitz. Where today, 70 years after its liberation by Soviet troops, the world did not invite Russia to return to remember their troops' liberation of Auschwitz. Because Russia's troops are now being used to take the sovereign territory of its neighbor, to conquer and oppress the people of Ukraine, after a Russian missile in the Ukraine shot-down a civilian airliner filled with innocents.
And there it is again, a loose end in that inextricably tangled web of invocations of past and present horrors. That place, that cognitive concept. Where scope and magnitude and scale and intent and commitment of resources for something objectively evil gets muddled and confused. Where it's all exploited, used to manipulate and motivate for transitory gain, even for enriching the few whose stock holdings are dripping with blood.
And our media, our message sorters and deciders, the ethereal cyberical nature of our time, overpopulated as it is with image makers and message crafters and spinners and "truthiness" and masters of obfuscation and distraction and "no-no-no, watch-THIS-not-that," cannot sort it out. We have empowered something that is beyond us.
And therein is, at a primordial level, a clue to the seduction of Germany, to the genesis of Auschwitz. It had it's most horrific realization in Germany, but what causes it isn't gone.
America's military and intelligence-gathering "community" was found to have used systematic torture at Abu Ghrab because we were willing to "make allowances" after 9-11.
We live with a liberty-limiting Patriot Act that the Patriots of '76 would have actively opposed, and we're okay with that, because it was "necessary" after 9-11.
President Obama is blocked by Congress from closing America's own concentration camp that is so oddly situated in a piece of Cuba, for reasons and justifications that boil down to fear and hatred and a particular phobia.
Perhaps no generation will be able to consider Auschwitz without inescapably seeing it in the light of current times. Historians have a never-ending task saying, "yes, but..." - whatever past event or trend or attitude or revolution is being considered.
There remains one thing we can do. It is what we must always do. We can look back through the eyes of our shared humanity and collapse the time that has passed. We can look at the piles of shoes and the mountains of cut-off hair and suitcases from theAcoustic murdered victims of Auschwitz, and we can remember that each one of them had eyes into which we can look.
Seventy years ago today, the scant 7,000 surviving victims of Auschwitz met the eyes of their liberators, the eyes of soldiers who had seen so much horror on the battlefield. If we simply remember our humanity, we can indeed imagine that.
Catch the CNN documentary, "Voices of Auschwitz," Wednesday night.