In which I reveal that I’m a coward

Alice Herz-Sommer, who has died aged 110, was a pianist whose unending optimism came to symbolise the triumph of good over evil. She survived two years in Terezín, the “model” concentration camp used by the Nazis to convince the outside world that they were treating Jewish prisoners well, and at the time of her death was the oldest known Holocaust survivor.

Terezin is just down the road from where I’m working in Bohemia. And just up the road, over the border in Pirna, is the first of the “hospitals” the Nazis used to liquidate the disabled. Both are well run museums these days and being in this part of the world I really ought to check them out. But I’m afraid that I’m too much of a coward.

A couple of decades ago I went to a small museum in Prague. Based upon the toys that children (in Terezin I think) had left behind after their liquidation. I simply burst into tears at the evil of it all. Blubbered as if I too was 4 again.

Just not got the courage to go through all that again.

23 thoughts on “In which I reveal that I’m a coward”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Just not got the courage to go through all that again.

    How is that being a coward? You have a reasonable human response to mass murder. You know you will experience it again. You do not need to do it. So why do it?

    Courage is fear faced with resolution. It is not going up to a bull elephant and kicking it in the balls because it is there. It is going up to a bull elephant and kicking it in the balls because you have to.

    Sensible people avoid memorials to the slaughter of children

  2. Agreed. It doesn’t make you a coward, it makes you human.

    I would say though that these museums are necessary and have never been more necessary. One only needs to read extracts from the libel ation brought by David Irvine against Deborah Lipstadt to know the lengths to which some men will go to deny factual truth. We see it everywhere, most disgustingly in the 9/11 conspiracy theories (it didn;t happen; it did happen but was the work of the Jews to discredit muslims; but anyway the Americans deserved it.)

    Where the Shoa is not being denied, it is today being hijacked by groups in the UK anxious to equate it with other mass slaughters. This attempted equivalence effectively denies the uniqueness of the Shoa, the planning involved and its industrial nature, its long historical context, all designed as a sick method of undermining the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

    It is also needed becuse children don’t have an historical memory. A teacher firend of mind told me of taking her class to see Schindler’s List. Some of the kids thought they were watching Rambo-style entertainment. She asked for the film to be stopped and re-started after she had explained that this actually happened, that these were real people, that one of the men placing stones became a New York photographer of note, that his friend you see slipping under the wire in Warsaw became a famous Hollywood director, that this happened in the middle of Europe, that this could have been us on the receiving end but more likely would have been us joining in.

    So, we shouldn’t go if we don’t want to; nothing wrong with that. We should support the work though.

  3. I had the same experience on the Holocaust room at The War Museum when I saw the display of all the shoes recovered from one of the concentration camps. I just had to leave.

  4. Same reason I can’t watch films set during the holocaust any more. Just too bloody depressing.

    If you spend enough time immersed in horror and sadness it can be seriously bad for your mental health.

  5. At Auschwitz they’ve set up some of the barracks to hold different types of items that had been taken off the prisoners: shoes, suitcases, etc. One has the hair that was shaved off their heads and being used to make clothing. It was the most profoundly disturbing thing I have ever seen or could imagine seeing. I didn’t feel sad so much as sick and angry.

  6. The only people I would describe as cowards in this regard are those who deny that it happened or downplay the scale of it and refuse to go and see the evidence for themselves.

  7. Ironman,

    But in reality, the holocaust deniers are a tiny bunch of irrelevant cranks. Showing people what the nazis did isn’t going to prevent the same thing happening again because the next bunch of capable tyrants aren’t going to use the name or any of the iconography of the Nazis.

    If you want to stop something like that ever happening again, it’s about the economics. It’s about voters being so well off that they vote for moderate governments rather than being so desperate that they’d vote for someone like Adolf Hitler.

  8. slightly o/t but I wonder how many of the camp guards in these loathsome places were forebears of the current opposition heroes of Ukraine?

  9. Tim Almond

    Maybe

    And yet around this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day I saw leaflets from a political group referring to the Rwandan Genocide, the Armenian Genocide,various other slaughters at various African tribal fault-lines. Importantly, I saw references to genocide as the slaughter of civilians – a generic phrase. Nowhere in this literature was the word “Shoa” used, the preferred term in Israel. Where the 1940s holocaust was referred to other groups were highlighted, often being placed ahead of Jews in the list. The underlying message is that the Shoa is another slaughter, another group that has suffered, nothing to justify or help justify the existence of the State of Israel. I do not accept that this is accidental.

  10. Nothing wrong with that Tim, it is only human nature.

    I was the same when I walked through the remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz and looked up at the square hole where the pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped.

    Awful, beyond imagining and also why such sites must be preserved as a reminder to humanity of the horror of war.

  11. I understand the reasoning, and like the others above would not call it cowardice.

    Some 25-odd years ago I visited Dachau as part of a school exchange trip to Munich. There’s no way I’m ever going near the place again, but I urge everyone to visit it (or a similar site) once.

  12. I went to Dachau and remembered thinking how unbelievably damned cold it was, and seeing the pictures of the flimsy pajama things the prisoners were clothed in.

    But I found the museum in Washington DC which displayed the artifacts left at the Vietnam War Memorial wall far more upsetting, I don’t know why. Some of them were heartbreaking.

  13. Bloke in Costa Rica

    My mother visited Auschwitz when she was serving in Germany with the British Army (in the 60’s). Ever since she told me the effect it had on her (I won’t go into details) I have had no wish to see anything like it. I haven’t seen Schindler’s List for the same reason. I don’t even like slasher movies. There’s more than enough horror in the world as it is and I have a pretty good imagination.

  14. BICR – “There’s more than enough horror in the world as it is and I have a pretty good imagination.”

    This.

    Which incidentally is why the success of Torture-porn movies like the Saw series sickens me to my stomach…

  15. One trip to Belsen in the early ’80s and regularly driving past when I was serving in Germany was enough for me.

    Even listening to this week’s obituary of Irving Milchberg (Warsaw Ghetto survivor) in The Economist when I was out on a run brought brought tears to my eyes. To be fair it doesn’t take much, I can’t get through the 2 minutes silence on 11 Nov without tears, even when I’m on my own at home.

  16. For me it was the sight of a small bar of soap, no larger than the sort you get in a hotel room. It was in the Resistance and Deportation Museum in Besancon. Impressed upon the bar are the letters “RIF” indicating it is actually made of “Real Jewish Fat”. Quite simply one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen.

  17. So Much for Subtlety

    Bloke In Italy – “slightly o/t but I wonder how many of the camp guards in these loathsome places were forebears of the current opposition heroes of Ukraine?”

    Actually the Ukrainians involved were probably the least guilty of anyone on the murderers side. Most of them were recruited out of PoW Camps. I am not sure what I would do if given a choice between dying in a camp and being a camp guard.

    Ironman – “The underlying message is that the Shoa is another slaughter, another group that has suffered, nothing to justify or help justify the existence of the State of Israel. I do not accept that this is accidental.”

    But is it wrong? Do we really say that the victims of Soviet genocide are less important than the victims of Nazi murder? Do we say that murdering White people in Europe is worse than murdering Tinted People far away?

    John Galt – “Awful, beyond imagining and also why such sites must be preserved as a reminder to humanity of the horror of war.”

    These are not memorials to the horrors of war. Soldiers did not do the killing. The victims were civilians. The war simply provided the cover for the killing.

    Michael – “Impressed upon the bar are the letters “RIF” indicating it is actually made of “Real Jewish Fat”. Quite simply one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen.”

    There is a fine line between historical accuracy and actual denial that I would not like to go near. But there is a basic contradiction between starving Jews and trying to use their corpses for soap. I believe that the soap claims are largely false. There are no real examples.

  18. And to declare your fear at least requires the courage to admit it. Real cowards would deny even that.

  19. I sympathise. For the same reasons I did not visit Auschwitz when I was close to it. The thought of what happened there was too much.

  20. Axis War Crimes Andy

    “Where the Shoa is not being denied, it is today being hijacked by groups in the UK anxious to equate it with other mass slaughters. This attempted equivalence effectively denies the uniqueness of the Shoa, the planning involved and its industrial nature, its long historical context, all designed as a sick method of undermining the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”

    Because it wasn’t unique, and denying the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust is not in itself a bad thing, nor is it necessarily designed to ‘undermine the legitimacy of Israel. A number of people are actually motivated by determining what happened.

    How is the mass murder of European Jews for the reason that they were Jews any different to the mass slaughter of Tutsis because they were Tutsis? Because it was industrialised? Is being gassed worse than being chopped up by a machete?

  21. Axis War Crimes Andy

    Christ, I find myself in complete agreement with smfs:

    “But is it wrong? Do we really say that the victims of Soviet genocide are less important than the victims of Nazi murder? Do we say that murdering White people in Europe is worse than murdering Tinted People far away?”

    The answer is of course no. Its touchy in the extreme for certain Israelis or ‘friends of Israel’ to think that examining other genocides is part of a concerted attack on Israel’s legitimacy. I am sure that in some cases it is part of an anti-Semitic effort. For instance if it is accompanied by an attempt to deny aspects of the Holocaust that are beyond dispute (the use of gas in some camps or the existence of a plan to exterminate every last Jew in Europe). It is also antisemitic to use other genocides / massacres to justify the Holocaust. Just pointing out that there were other victims of genocide isn’t antisemitic at all – its true!

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