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Five years ago, while visiting my daughter in France, I plucked a book from her shelves and began reading it in her guest bedroom. The front windows in that room look out upon a street re-named decades ago in honor of the American infantry division that liberated my ex-pat daughter's village and dozens of other Normandy villages in the summer of 1944.

Innocent Blood

The Long and Deadly Struggle Against the Tyranny of Human Stupidity—Jaime O'Neill

The book I began to read in that room bears the title Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. It was written by Philip Hallie who chronicles the efforts of people of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to save their Jewish neighbors from death in the concentration camps. Le Chambon is located far to the south of where my daughter has taken up residence, but reading of French resistance in the year I was born took on special vividness, requiring less imagination than it might have asked of me back at home in California.

The primary protagonist in the book is Pastor Andre Trocme. In the early pages of this small slice of the history of those horrors, the author recounts how Trocme was hauled before the police chief in nearby Limoges in February of 1943. This is what the author shares with readers about that interrogation, and the realization Pastor Trocme took from the experience:

"This was a moment Trocme would never forget," he writes. "In fact, his overnight stay in the police station in Limoges changed his view of mankind. He discovered people like the captain--patriotic, sincere, above all, severely limited. These people were capable of repeating hate-ridden clichés without concern for evidence or for the pain of others. Before he entered the police station in Limoges he thought the world was a scene where two forces were struggling for power: God and the Devil. From then on, he knew that there was a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity. God, the Devil and halfwits of mind and heart were all struggling with each other to take over the reins."

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He told me that the men who tortured him were often drunk, and that any olfactory reminder of the booze on their breath could still make him nauseous.

About ten years ago, I did a rather long piece for a local alternative weekly about a Dutch survivor of the holocaust, a guy who spent seven months in Mauthausen, one of the lesser known concentration camps. His name was Bert Schapelhouman. He survived the horrors of that place in 1944 and '45, and the horrors before he was sent to Mauthausen. Though not as familiar to most people as Auschwitz or Buchenwald, it was just as bad.

I listened to this dear man tell his story over the course of several days of interviewing in his immaculate home, watched as he teared up at some of the memories being prompted by my questions. Though he wasn't Jewish, he was sent to Mauthausen because he was suspected, rightly, of resistance activity. He was 19 at the time, and his fingernails and toenails were pulled out with pliers during the interrogations that took place in his village before he was loaded on a train for the internment camp.

He told me that the men who tortured him were often drunk, and that any olfactory reminder of the booze on their breath could still make him nauseous.

And he also told me of their thick stupidity, and the easy arrogance that came with those limitations. Though he was 6 ft. tall, he weighed just over 80 pounds when he was liberated from Mauthausen. A few years later, he managed to gain entry to Canada, then later to the U.S. where he became a lifelong member of the Democratic Party, a solid advocate and supporter of a range of human rights and humanitarian causes. A good, a decent, and an intelligent warrior against stupidity and the arrogance that stupidity so readily enables.

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill