Since several years, I belong to a Cultural Centre; we do not have much in terms of resources, so we heavily rely on volunteering on the part of members to run activities.
Next year, I have been assigned a rather uncomfortable task, which is to run the event we are organizing to celebrate the Holocaust on January 27th; the guest speaker I will interview is Rita Franchini Ponti, author of “Escape from the Lager” where she tells the story of her mother Augusta, a then young lady who got deported not because she was Jewish, but because she opposed the fascists. She did not wear a yellow star, but a red triangle and, in that sense, her treatment was even worse because she has actually done something to “deserve” her fate: in her case, this was to help English and American soldiers escaped from prisons to cross over the mountains to Switzerland. Among the many acts of unspeakable brutality, Augusta was raped multiple times and she conceived a baby with which she managed to escape the concentration camp and return to Italy, where she was forced to give the baby in adoption due to her disheveled physical and mental condition, never to see her again.
I don’t like books on lager experiences; they are sad, they depress me and remind me something I’d rather forget. But this is the very reason I force myself to read them.
There is no question that the reason the Holocaust catches people’s imagination is not only its scale (after all, there are examples of even larger exterminations) but perhaps the fact it was a botched project. Even monsters like Himmler understood that die Endlösung der Judenfrage should be shielded from outside scrutiny and he attempted to wipe out traces of what happened; but it simply left far too many survivors who told us in rich details not only the horror of industrialized “processing” of prisoners, but also (and perhaps more strikingly) acts of savage cruelty performed by individuals: what sort of monster plays football with a newborn infant before killing him in front of his mother?
No ideology can create this, but ideologies can create a frame where these instincts surface and – unfortunately – these instincts are everywhere.
During a recent visit in Ukraine, somebody told me that 8 million Ukrainians died during WWII, with less than a million being the deaths of servicemen in the Red Army, the others being the effect of savage agricultural quotas imposed on Ukrainian farmers by the Soviets; yet, we know much less about what happened there, or in Japan or Cambodia, simply because these have been performed much more efficiently.
Given the six extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibòr and Chelmno had a combined throughput of about 50,000 people a day, had the war lasted another three months, perhaps now we would be wondering what really happened to all these disappeared people, because nobody would have survived.
These stories are therefore of immense value, painful as they are, because they are not only the stories of millions of Jews or Soviet POWs disposed of like cargo (as Franz Stangl, longest serving commander of Treblinka, used to call them) but they are also the putative stories of Armenian, Congolese, Filipino or Rwandans where nobody was left to tell us.