I remember watching The History Channel and learning about Auschwitz, how it was the biggest concentration camp. The word was foreign in my mouth, the rolling vowels, the hard ‘v’, but I learned it. Again and again I learned it, when I was sixteen in history class learning about Mengele, and when I was nineteen studying in Prague, choosing Paris for a weekend with my parents over Krakow and Auschwitz with my class. But I knew it was something I’d see, just not yet.
When I was ready I knew. I looked at the tons of chopped women’s hair used to make mattresses. It wasn’t barbershop floor hair; it had belonged to those women and been taken unrighteously. I choked when I saw the spectacles, the baby shoes…
We had to wait to be assigned to our groups. As we waited, people laughed, ate. Did they have any idea of what happened inside? Or were they just visiting because they’d heard that’s what you do when you go to Krakow. Inside it was so crowded that the process of seeing the camp mimicked what it must have been like to’ve been a prisoner. We waited to get in the blocks, filed single file in, single file out. Wait to get your headset, wait to drop it off… Group A over here, Group B…Of course it was nothing like actually being a prisoner, but that sense was conveyed, unintentionally, I think.
That the Jews were denied the right to live because of the shape of their noses or their maternal grandparents’ religion is enough to make me think it was the worst (attempted) genocide ever. There have been other pogroms, massacres and genocides, but the way it was done in secret, as though the Nazis were ashamed of their war crimes, as well as the sheer numbers– far more than any other mass killing– and that it happened during the largest war ever, makes it unique. But you can read about Auschwitz and concentration camps on Wikipedia, this post is about why concentration camps still exist today.
Auschwitz II- Birkenau is down the road, and is about ten times the size of Auschwitz I, where the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign hangs. The former used to be about 300 barracks, and it was where most of the Jews were killed, where the Fuhrer used to point left if you weren’t fit for working, if you were young, old, or weak, and right if you were. As we walked over the gray and muddy champaign, with the tall birches swaying in the distance, a Dutch man asked our guide about the Nazi soldiers, whether they had a choice, if we can justify their actions at all. It comes down to what you believe about human nature, she said.
At the memorial, I walked along the 22 plaques with the cry to humanity to not forget, trying to determine which languages were which. I met a man while trying to decipher what could have been Macedonian. He’s a PhD student in microbiology and computer science. It became apparent that we were separated from our group. Like sheep, we looked for signs of our master. There were none, so we continued on.
I told him I’m a writer, and he said he wished he could write non-fiction, and read more fiction. He’s reading a book now called The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. It’s about evolutionary psychology; for example, he had overheard the question of the Nazi soldiers also, and said that perhaps the Nazis were just missing a wheel on their bicycle.
I agreed, thinking of my experience with Ali last month, how I believe that his nature led him to theft. Despite my attempts at cultivating a bond between us, learning about him and his family, he still looked me in the eyes and lied to me from the bottom of his heart. I can’t believe such behavior is a result of his environment, that he did so because he had a hard childhood, and wasn’t educated, and I think, based on how dark shadows came over his brow while he sipped white wine and swore, thinking about remote worries, that he is of a lower class of humanity, tending toward baser thoughts and actions; that even if he had been nurtured and loved as a child, and well-educated, his true nature would have shone through, perhaps by his cheating on his wife, or laundering money, or any other vice. I now believe people act according to their nature– that there are good people and bad, and a whole lot in the middle.
“Most people aren’t capable of being intellectuals,” the microbiologist said, “In the same way most people aren’t capable of being good. The question is, how does society deal with those who aren’t, and how do we answer the questions that arise from this assumption. Serial murderers and rapists, people who aren’t necessarily influenced by their environment, are genetically prone to killing. Does this mean that it was evolutionarily advantageous at some point in the past to kill and rape? And if so wouldn’t that mean that for those people prone to such behavior, rehabilitation is impossible?”
“Yeah,” I said, “We should lock them up and put them in a padded cell for the rest of their lives.”
“Then what do you do if they have children? Tell them not to breed?”
“Yeah, but you run the risk of becoming Nazis. That won’t happen for many centuries, though; the U.S. and Western Europe are too entrenched in liberality and atoning for their cultural sins to do that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, we’re still apologizing for the cultural problems that arose out of believing that people aren’t equal. We’re only fifty years past the Civil Rights movement, for example.”
“I tend to agree with you,” he said. “But the ideals of the French and American Revolutions, and the Enlightenment led to poor practices in the 20th century. Communism failed because it was enacted on the premise that everyone could be equal and live unselfishly. To think that I want to program code in front of a computer for eight hours a day, solely for the sake of bettering humanity– it’s absurd.”
“That’s why it will be a while before we can understand that people aren’t equal– the 20th century was when Enlightenment ideals reached their acme,” I said. “But those ideals were held against the belief that people are unequal. Unequality wasn’t based on morality, but mostly on race, sex, and nationality. Enlightenment ideals weren’t wrong; it’s just that prejudices got in the way of clearly viewing morality. Today we’re still trying to reconcile political equality with human capacity. On the way to a socialistic and communistic society, say, in three to five hundred years, we’ll see that political rights don’t entail human abilities. But that’s not to say that in the future the Declaration of Independence will be dated. I think people will look at it relativistically, as a piece of Enlightenment idealism, to be read as we read the Bible today.”
“Yeah but when I read the Bible about stoning my enemies, I know that a lot has changed since; I mean there’s nothing to be read relativistically.”
“There’s some to be read relativistically,” I said. “Most of us don’t take the Bible literally, but with a grain of salt.”
We still hadn’t found our group. We saw another of the English speaking groups and asked the guide where ours was. She didn’t know but she said we could join hers. After she told us about the poor living conditions the women had in their barracks, we walked past the dark wooden bunks covered in straw, and resumed our conversation.
He said, “There are issues with believing in a set human nature, like how do we repudiate nihilism and determinism. For example, why go on living if it’s all meaningless and it’s been set in our genetic code from day one. And in the book he argues, rather unconvincingly, that if we have the same political freedoms, then we’ll be able to judge accordingly what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“Why is it unconvincing?”
“Because people are selfish. And even with a set of laws to judge who’s good and bad, we’re still subject to side with those closest to us. Take primates, for example. Those within the line of kin are always treated better than those step-children–”
“Shhhh, she’s talking,” a blond-haired man turned to say. We stopped, but we were still thinking about how selfishness makes us get what we want in the rat race.
Now I was more interested in whether the Nazis were born ready to kill Jews, than how the Jews lived as prisoners in these former stables. When the tour guide finished talking, and we walked into the men’s barracks, the microbiologist and I were separated. It seemed that our conversation was over. I didn’t get his name, didn’t even say goodbye. This was the last stop on the tour; we clapped and dispersed.
Any debate is like a fight. You wish you could go back in time and act differently– bring up points, add facts, cite books. While I didn’t say it then, I began to think of how in the future it will be much easier to accept that people are born into a state of good or bad, based on their genetics, because we’ll have gotten over the racial, gender, and nationalistic differences that corrupted the belief in a human nature during the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course everyone isn’t equal, but only 225 years after such a belief was promulgated worldwide, we still have a long way to go before we understand what the Founding Fathers really meant. And hopefully by that time, everyone will be the same color, and naive prejudices won’t immediately affect judgements. Thus the capacity to live in a purely socialistic state, where people get what they need and work as they’re able, will be more possible. And in determining who’s capable of what, we’ll be better able to prevent and anticipate evil, hopefully.
So maybe in three centuries they won’t blame the Nazis as we do; maybe they’ll think it was part of their baser human nature. That won’t mean they’re forgiven– it will only show that evil exists in the world and we have to fight for justice and good. Auschwitz will always serve as a symbol of what can happen when we forget that.