Saturday, December 5, 2015

Remembering Nelson

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela - a man who is justly called one of the fathers of our nation.  There are many of us who might have problems with some of the positions he took and some of the compromises he made.  But no-one can doubt his greatness or his significance. Or his remarkable ability to bring together opposing opposites.

A poem I wrote  at the time:

(Remembering Nelson)

When all is said and done
And the sound of the earth falling on
The box that holds
Your body
Is muffled
And the bugle
And the poet
Rasping "Aah Dalibhunga"
Is dim

Then, in that moment,
Let me look upwards
And see the broad sky.

When all is said and done
And the flags are folded
The chairs stacked
The tents stowed
For another show
On another day

Then, in that quiet moment,
Let me look outwards
And see the far horizon.

When all is said and done
And the social medias
Have found another saint
Or another sinner
To hail
Or to hang
To praise
Or to pillory

Then, let me think
Of this shining day
Of this bright
African son

When all is said and done.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Perpetrator and victim - visiting Auschwitz

Beyond the electric fences which kept the prisoners inside the camp, there is a pleasant looking, double story house. This was the house of Rudolf Hoess, who ran the camp. It is located within easy walking distance of the gas chambers and the ovens. From one of the windows on the top floor, you could see the roof of the gas chamber, if you were to look, on any day, at any hour.

It was here that Hoess raised his children. This is where his family slept and ate their breakfast. This is where he relaxed. This is where he made love to his wife, heard his children preparing for school. This is where he listened to the radio, read a book, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, where he slept and where he rose in the morning for work.

As it happens, it was also within sight of his house, that he was hanged for his crimes, on a simple wooden scaffold, erected with wooden pillars on either side, holding aloft a single piece of railway track. It was erected for him and it stands today, in his terrible memory.

But it is this extraordinary fact of placement that grips one, when one visits Auschwitz. That the crimes he was committing, he did within easy walking distance from his family life. Thousands upon thousands of people were being tortured, maimed, experimented upon, shot, gassed and murdered in many other ways. On a daily and routine basis. Children were wrenched from their fathers arms and led to their deaths. Mothers were forced to watch while their babies were murdered in front of their eyes and then were put to death themselves.

Families were ruthlessly split. The weak and less useful were disposed of as quickly as possible. It was not, in a macabre sense, a problem for the Nazis of how many people could be killed at any one time. Their ability for this was fairly limitless. But the numbers of deaths posed a logistical problem of the time it took to dispose of their bodies. The first solution was mass burial. This required considerable space and the right kind of soil. In Birkenau, (also known as Auschwitz 2, and just down the road from Auschwitz 1) mass burial became unsustainable, because the soil was clay - and the bodies eventually would re-emerge , whenever it rained. So mass cremation replaced mass burial - and cremation placed an irritating limit on the amount of people who could be killed on any one day. Birkenau is, incidentally, some 30 times larger than Auschwitz 1. And when you walk on that ground, in some areas, it is the ashes of the dead that forms the dust on your shoes.

In one of the rooms in Auschwitz, there is a very large glass urn. It is filled with the ashes of what were once human beings. People with lives, and homes, and children, and hopes and dreams. There they lie now. All and everything that remains of them. Mixed together with others who shared their fate. A tragedy of innocence.

Innocence, because these people had done nothing other than live where they lived, worship where they worshipped, shop where they shopped, learn where they schooled. They had simply lived their lives. And this was what was deemed to be a crime worthy of the most indescribable punishment, suffering, death and utter and absolute dehumanisation and commodification.

One of our party found it most extraordinary that there was so much deception involved in the process: The Jews were told that they needed to bring a packed suitcase with them. (If they packed a suitcase, there must be a future!) They were told to bring a basin in which they would wash themselves. (If they had a basin and they could wash - surely it wouldn't be so bad!) They were told very explicitly, that Work means Freedom, on their arrival, as they walked into hell. (I'm strong. I can work. I will get my freedom!) They were told that they could bring with them fifty Deutschmark, to see them live in a little comfort after they arrived. (There must be, at least, the chance of a little more comfort! Why else would they suggest i bring money?)

Those who were so selected were told they would be able to shower. (If I shower, at least I will feel a little better!) The men should undress on the one side of a wall and the women on the other. It was a shower! It was so very welcome! They could not know that they would meet each other, naked, beyond that door. Their naked children would be with them. Their human dignity would be utterly destroyed, but they would be there, naked and alive, long enough to feel it all draining from their bodies. When the Zyclon B gas was pumped into the room, there was time enough for them, by far, to know what was happening to them - what had happened to them.

It took 10 minutes on a good day - but anything up to 30 minutes on a bad day - depending on weather conditions, after the gas was delivered into the chamber - for them all to die. There would be panic. There would be desperate and vain attempts to escape the horror. There would be prayers which were never answered. There would be people trampled beneath, in an orgy of despair and desperation.

When the chamber fell completely silent, as it always did, the bodies would be removed and processed. The bodies would be disinfected and the hair would be removed for recycling. Jewelry would be removed and collected, sorted, counted and dispatched. Clothes would be sorted and searched. Everything and anything useful or valuable would be sent back to Germany for sale or re-use. Nothing was discarded, unless it really was useless. Metal eyelets would be removed from the shoes of the victims - so detailed and so precise was the processing of the commodity.

Hitler needed an enemy. He needed an enemy to galvanize his party and his people. And when choosing an enemy, it would be wise to choose an enemy that is not too poor, which is why the Jews suited him so well. Because they were, effectively, the middle class of Poland. They could be trusted to bring with them their allocated fifty Deutschmark. They would have a suitcase. They would fill it with their belongings. They would, most likely, have gold filled teeth.

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, some time ago, about the banality of evil. Banal, because it is so easy. Banal because of the fact that it does not take anyone very extraordinary to be evil. You do not need any special talents. You do not need to be athletic, or gifted, or beautiful (or indeed, ugly!) You do not need to be bright, or stupid, or particular in any way. You can be all of these things, and none.

Some years ago, I encountered the Psychologist, Elaine Bing, who has spent most of her professional life working with perpetrators of violence. These people - usually men - are obviously not the most beloved of society. They have committed horrible crimes. More often than not way in excess of any order they might have received. More often than not, they are outwardly normal. They lead seemingly normal lives. You would not be able to identify them by the way they look or the way they live. To all intents and purposes, they are upstanding members of society. They will frequently attend church. They will, perhaps, love culture. They will appreciate art or a good novel. But below the surface, they are something very different.

They have no pity for their victims. They have no boundaries for any of their chilling behaviour. They have no remorse. They have no insight into any of the pain or any of the suffering and destruction they have caused.

I asked Elaine how she coped with dealing with them. How did she survive her encounters? How did she not feel contaminated and sullied? Her response was as powerful as it was shocking. She said "I think to myself, that could be me".

Dealing with ghosts - Visiting Auschwitz

It is 3.13 am in the morning.  I have wrestled with my bedclothes and I have chased after (and lost) any hope of sleep. I have given up. Tonight, it will not happen. I have resigned myself to that bald and simple fact.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - which can prepare one for the kind of emotions one will encounter when visiting Auschwitz. Absolutely nothing.  No amount of pain.  No amount of horror.  No experience, no thought, no imagining, no sound, no silence. There is nothing. There is nothing.  There is nothing.

The vastness of it all - the sheer size and magnitude - defies any depiction or any human words.  Put them together how you may. Pile up epithet upon epithet, image upon image, horror upon horror, metaphor upon metaphor - and still you will never be prepared. Take everything you know about war, splice all your slivers of knowledge together, pack them as high as you can - to the ceiling, to the rafters, to the roof, to the chimney - and still ... still you will not be able to prepare yourself for what you will find there. 

The arrival to this place is unemotional and unimpressive.  There are no theme park banners.  There are no pointers or flyers, no garish advertising. The building itself, from  where the visitor encounters it, is uninspiring and even a bit ugly. The signs directing you to the toilet or the modest shops are vaguely amateur.

You will be struck by the coaches, parked and waiting for the people they are transporting.  How many of them there are.  How many people want to come here.  You will notice that the entrance is free.  (You pay for your guide, only). There is a line of people going into the camp.  They come from Australia and India and England and America.  Others have travelled here from every corner of Europe.  There is a party of Germans, behind us.  How, asked a member of our party, do Germans deal with this, when they come to visit here?  Like everyone else, said our guide, they are quiet.  Maybe they are a bit more quiet, he reflected. 

At the entrance to this place, there are pictures of prisoners.  Front and side.  Some of them have information.  Some have none.  I met this man, across the years and the boundaries of distance and language.  His name was Brak Danych.  He had been given a number 604.  And beyond that, there is no data available.  He was Polish.  They started with the Poles.  He is a young man of maybe 18 or 19 - 20 at the most. And he was murdered. The picture was his last.  There is no hope in his eyes.

Everything he might have been.  His children that he never had.  His family, his endeavours, his bravery (or perhaps his lack), his loves, his likes, his hopes, his dreams and his fears are all there.  They crowd into this one picture.  He is alone as he faces his captors and his fate. Only his name and his scared - his sad, resigned eyes stare across the years to us now.

And then it starts. 

As you pass through the iron gates, with the famously cynical statement, that "Work brings Freedom", you are gripped as if by a whirlwind.  Or, as I would imagine, a Tsunami. You are ill-prepared for what you will see. You have come wearing the thinest of cotton, in a mighty snowstorm.  You are covered in the thickest of overcoats, when the mercury is pushing beyond 45 degrees. 

You will walk the corridors, not as a prisoner - (for you will walk out again).  You will walk as a perpetrator.  You will begin to understand, with the luxury of freedom as your guiding light, how far we can go, when we want to, into that valley of hate. When we choose to go there and when no-one is at hand to stop us.

The ghosts of Auschwitz do not scream or yell. They make no sound at all. They throw nothing. They leave no footprints, they rustle no leaves. They are not violent, or angry.  They make no attempt at communication. They are silent.

It is the silence of utter and complete despair. Disbelief. Incomprehension. It is the silence of the piles upon piles - upon yet more piles of their belongings.  Shoes, enamel basins, spectacles, prostheses, combs and piles of human hair.  Piles that lie desolate and forever.  

These are the silent places of our world, where there is nothing that can be said.  No words.  No philosophy, no religion, no god. No song, no chant, no music of any sort or kind. There is nothing to soothe the brain thrown into turmoil. There can be no solace. No balm at all. That silence - that silence of the closed and the open mouths of those millions whose commercial worth would be assessed on their arrival and would seal their fate - that is what we are confronted with here. There is nothing to say.  There is nothing that can be said. There is nothing to be said. Nothing.

And as you start to stagger a little, as you start to limp into the next corridor.  As your settled world starts to unravel and undo.  As your brain tries in vain to filter and to file what you are seeing, you start to meet those ghosts of Auschwitz.  You see them in the man Mengele is selecting for death, because he would be too old to work. You see them in the mother and her children, walking to their inevitable deaths.  In the confused young man. In the child with his suitcase. In the footfall of torture and death.

They are still silent, but they are starting to take form and shape.  They carry with them their suitcases.  Their stay will not be forever - they think. They will be needing a basin to wash themselves. A brush for their hair. They have just had a terrible journey and they need to get themselves stripped for a shower, these silent ghosts of our collective past. 

And they pass us on their journey. We meet them in their delusion and in their hell. We pass them by as we go our way. And, most probably, next week and next month, we will meet them again.  But we will not nod at them or make any eye contact with them or show them any sympathy. Our tears will all be dry.  Our lives will be being lived again.  Our work and our comfortable families will take up our interest and our time. 

You see, these silent ghosts do not leave us, when  we leave this place. They do not need gas chambers to be real. They move amongst us still.  We meet them at the traffic light, dressed in rags.  We see them in the children we have neglected and ignored.  We pass them by in the drug dens of the Cape Flats and the makeshift houses thrown together out of wood and steel sheets in Orange Farm.

They are there, drinking the dirty water of our rivers.  They are looking in the dustbins of our cities. They are sleeping night after night, under a cardboard sheet. They are with us still.