Valley Voices

Nazi death camps started with small steps to hatred

By Diane Slocum

Visitors to Auschwitz in Poland can still view the horrifying gas chambers.
Visitors to Auschwitz in Poland can still view the horrifying gas chambers. Special to The Bee

A year ago, I was at Auschwitz. A year ago, I never imagined in such a short time I would see the incipient dehumanizing of the other occurring in the United States in such a widespread frenzy.

It’s not easy to write about a death camp. It hurts to carry those images in your head. It hurts more to try to put the sensations affecting all of your being into words. As I put these words on my screen, I only see them through a veil of tears.

The horrendousness of what happened at Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau and all the other camps is incomprehensible. One has to wonder if it is even right to visit these sites or if that in itself is disrespectful to the millions of lives that were snuffed out on those desecrated grounds.

At least everyone on my tour appeared to recognize the somber significance of the site. No one talked. Even the gray, drizzly day seemed to reflect the mood.

From outside, the neat rows of brick buildings at Auschwitz look like a normal apartment complex, but that is the only thing at that place that in any way gives that false impression.

The atrocious way the people were treated at the camp occurred the moment they were herded off the trains. The old, the sick, women with babies, pregnant women and small children were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Grandmothers were asked to take the babies so the younger women could be saved for work. If families complained about being separated, the separated were sent to the chambers, too. They were told they were going to the showers so people went calmly.

Those who were spared – temporarily – slept wall to wall on the floor or in triple bunks. They worked all day, only allowed to use the bathroom before or after work. They survived – if they did – on tea or coffee in the morning and very small portions of bread with either meat, jam or butter for their other two meals.

When they couldn’t work, they were murdered. If they did anything not allowed – and there was much not allowed – they were murdered. For no reason at all, they were murdered.

We saw the belongings that were taken from the prisoners – room-sized cases of suitcases, dishes, shoes, women’s hair (to be woven into cloth) – intended to be sent to Germany to be sold to its war-depleted citizens.

Standing in the courtyard where the firing squads turned life into bloody death, entering the gas chambers, standing next to the crematorium and looking across the barbed wire at the homes where the Nazi tormentors lived their lives, again the question comes up – why are we here?

I think when you stand in the actual place where humanity sank to its lowest level, besides becoming acutely aware of how evil and malleable people can be, if you have any sense of decency, you must feel some obligation to keep it from happening again.

And even as you do, you know it is still happening, not only in places like Syria and Nigeria, but in smaller if perhaps more insidious ways, even in the United States.

That is the reason to visit these camps, I think, not only the German Nazi camps, but places in the United States like Manzanar and Wounded Knee. We see how the hideously evil side of humanity can be brought out by a demagogue or government policy that appeals to fear and arouses masses to separate themselves from their fellow humans.

It’s ironic how Franklin D. Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and then his administration took loyal citizens of Japanese descent to camps out of a baseless fear that they would be a danger to America.

It is our challenge now to defeat the tendency of one set of people to deny the equal humanity of others, treating them with ill will or cruelty. We need to look into ourselves to weed out those aspects of our own prejudices and fears. We need the courage to stand against those who try to exploit our weaknesses by belittling and attacking others.

We need to work for a United States that moves away from hatred, fear and disrespect for those we deem different from ourselves, not more in that direction as we have seemed to do over the course of this year.

We need to remember that Auschwitz began with small steps, mostly at the behest of one man advocating for the greatness of his people at the cost of most everyone else.

Diane Slocum of Clovis is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor.