January 27, 2005



The husband, the resident German speaker, translates Arbeit Macht Frei as "Work Will Set You Free." He also says the literal translation would be "Work Makes Free." On the whole, these are fairly harmless words. One conceivably could use this phrase in reference to the myriad metaphysical woes we run through on a daily basis. Find Solace in Your Work has been said to many a person suffering through a personal loss. And it's true: there is solace to be found in work. Freedom, even. You can find freedom from your troubles in work because the work distracts you. These words are harmless. Annoyingly true---like all good cliches inevitably are---yet harmless.

Until the location of this gate loads them with a sense of efficient barbarism that can and should make your skin crawl.

This is an early photograph of the gates of Auschwitz.

Taken into this contex, the innocuous words, work will set you free, should make you wonder about the sadism of words.

Can you even begin to imagine what it was like to see those words? To finally know your fate after so many years of not knowing? So many years of having your rights, as a citizen of a supposed civilized society, be taken from you, one by one, until there were no more rights left. So many years of being treated as a pariah. So many years of wondering what it could possibly come to. Can you begin to imagine the idea that these words were intentionally placed to give hope? To lull Jews into a sense of false security so they wouldn't make life difficult for their murderers?

I wonder how many Jews saw those words and, while not completely free of fear, breathed a very small sigh of relief, not realizing they were simply empty words. How many said, Oh, it's just a work camp. The rumors weren't true after all. It's a question that will never be answered, because those who asked it, mostly, aren't around to answer it.

Today is the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

We talk a good game about never letting something like this ever happen again. We educate. We make movies. Books are published. Scholars dissect the history of those ages. We remember days like today. Yet, on the whole, we have failed. Genocides are an every day occurance, it seems. From Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, genocide is a thing that, unlike smallpox, hasn't been innoculated into eradication. We have yet to figure this one out. We have yet to figure out why people are driven by such hatred and envy to wipe their fellow human beings from the face of the earth for no other sin than being who they are.

I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with our imaginations and our failure to use them.

We, for the most part, refuse to walk a mile in the shoes of the suffering. We see them on the news, we say "how horrible!" then we go right back to doing whatever it was we were working on before we were interrupted. We might write a check to a relief organization. We might call our elected representatives to ask them to do something, but we don't really hold their feet to the fire about it, either. We lack a passion for the sanctity of life---unless it's our lives that are on the line. If it happens on the other side of the world, well, there really wasn't much we could do, was there?

The phrase, "the world closed their eyes" is often thrown about when it comes time for reckoning, but I think that's partially wrong. People not only close their eyes, they also shut down their minds. They don't want to think about this sort of thing. They don't want to be reminded that it could happen to them. They don't want to know about the suffering other than what they hear on the news, nicely segmented into two minute slots, because all sorts of uncomfortable thoughts might arise. They don't want to walk a mile in someone's else's shoes: they don't want to even slip their big toe into the wingtip.

Yet, there is a morbid fascination, isn't there, about genocides and how people suffered. The Holocaust in particular. People want to understand why six million people were slaughtered. Six million is a mind-boggling number, but it's also round and impressive in its largesse. They want to know why it happened, to see if there isn't a lesson to be learned about how to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. They watch the History Channel. They rent Schindler's List and weep when they see the little girl in the red coat obliviously meander her way through the Warsaw ghetto. They know what her fate is. They are moved by this imagery and thanks to accuracy in filmmaking no detail is missed, either. When the film is over, they might wonder about it all, but they don't really have to imagine it, either, because it's all there: all the gory details are aid out in black and white. They can turn off their TV's and go to bed, slightly disturbed by the movie, but knowing they're safe in their world. They might even be thankful that something like that couldn't ever happen to them.

Because absolutely nothing was left to the imagination, these people who sleep soundly after having watched a film like that, have never had to wonder about the possibility of such a thing ever happening to them. They are removed from it. Their hearts might have been engaged for a few hours, but their minds will go back to wondering about when the mortgage payment is due rather quickly.

Imagination is a funny thing. It can produce flights of fancy just as easily as it can nightmares. Yet the one thing that's universal to imagination is that we experience things first hand when we imagine. We wonder what we would do differently. How we would have handled it. Imagination forces the first-person experience upon those who will never have to suffer through the actual event. Yet, thanks to education, the world knows. We've seen. The work done educating the world about the Holocaust, by all rights, should have been enough to prevent a thousand genocides. Yet it hasn't. It is not the fault of the educators, but rather it is ours. We fail them every time a genocide comes along because we shut down our minds. In failing to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, we are just as apathetic as those who knowingly allow a genocide to occur. Our sympathy and erudition do nothing to stop the guys with the guns.

Imagine it. Today of all days. You can take some time to let your mind wander about it. Those who weren't liberated sixty years ago today, but who instead died a nameless death, ask it of you.

Posted by Kathy at January 27, 2005 01:37 AM

Excellent post, Kathy.

Posted by: Fausta at January 27, 2005 07:59 AM
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