Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. I’m not sure the world has yet learned the lessons of the horrors discovered there.
The Soviet Red Army reached Auschwitz first on its way through Poland. That was on Jan. 27, 1945. U.S. and British forces coming from the west found and liberated similar camps in the weeks to come.
In each place, the story was the same. There was evidence and testimony of an efficient killing machine. Those still alive were used as forced labor. Those who became unable to work were killed. Mass numbers of people were also executed as part of Hitler’s “final solution” for ridding his world of Jews. The survivors were emaciated and dying.
I frequently come across people online who claim that the killing that went on in these camps — of Jews, gypsies, gay people, mentally ill and other “undesirables” — either didn’t happen or else has been exaggerated.
Every time I hear such claims, I want to show these people the photos that I printed from very old negatives when I worked at a University of Alabama photo lab while I was in college.
The lab where I worked provided all sorts of photographic services for academic divisions of the university. Some days, I took photos, but most days, I worked in one of half a dozen of our darkrooms, printing black-and-white photos, either passports or prints from negatives with some sort of historic value.
One day, the head of the lab came to me and told me he had a difficult job he needed me to handle. Somebody in the university had been able to get old black-and-white negatives of photos that were taken by U.S. Army photographers when one of the concentration camps was liberated. And he needed me to print photos from all of those fragile old negatives.
The photos were very graphic. What you see online can’t compare to the horrors that I saw in those old images. There were mangled piles of emaciated bodies, including graphic images of torn body parts. There were close-ups of the equipment used to murder people with gas. There were pictures of dying survivors.
The fragile old negatives had to be handled carefully, so every print was done by hand. That means that I looked at each image — first as a negative to evaluate, then as a light being projected onto photographic paper, and then finally as an image coming to life in a tray of chemicals.
In order to do my job correctly, I had to pay attention to sickening details and handle their printing with cold technical precision. It took at least a week of work for me to process everything — and that was a very somber week for me.
I was living in freedom and prosperity as I looked at these images of what humans can do to other humans when they learn to hate — and then when they obey orders to murder men, women and children in cold blood.
The anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation has me thinking about these photos, but I’m also thinking about them because I feel the world heading into a very dark place in political and social terms.
For reasons which I’m not going to try to cover here — some of which I’ve covered before — I am very pessimistic about the future of our society. Things are making less and less sense for anybody who’s paying attention, and I fear it’s getting worse.
Most people don’t seem to notice this, but even if they do, they have only a vague sense that their political enemies are the cause of the looming problems. Few people seem to see it as a systemic problem which is likely to bring us back around to this same sort of ugliness which we swore wouldn’t happen again.
I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know how to make the world make enough sense that it‘s not painful to live in human society — and that’s depressing to me.
We’re seeing an increase in all sorts of group hatred today. Antisemitism is on the rise. Racial tensions are rising, with whites, blacks and Hispanics as allies and enemies in different situations. Those who call themselves conservatives hate the people they call liberals, even though they have absolutely no understanding of what those hated people really want. Those on the left have a growing hatred of white people who don’t share their socialist leanings. And they have special hatred for southern white men.
There are lots of other divisions. Ethnic. Religious. Geographical. It’s not just disagreement. It’s hatred.
In secretly recorded audio, a key aide to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks of being a communist and wanting to kill rich people and send conservatives to “re-education camps.” The private words of those of other groups would reveal similarly dark desires to dehumanize and destroy their opponents, too.
The murders of millions in Nazi concentration camps came because Hitler and people who followed him had to find someone to blame for everything they saw wrong in the world. People today are doing the same things. They don’t yet have the power to go as far as things went in the Third Reich, but give them time.
The real lessons of those concentration camps is that hatreds of this sort — based on group identity — ultimately lead to very dark places. We don’t have concentration camps or anything similar yet, but the people of Germany didn’t believe any such thing was coming when Hitler rose to power in 1933, either.
We have to find ways to live in peace with those we don’t agree with. We have to quit trying to use force to make other people obey our desires for how they should behave and what they must do with their lives and property.
If the hatred we see today keeps growing, some form of Auschwitz will be right around the corner again.