Guarding Auschwitz

Note to Readers in the NYC area: Robert Royal will be speaking at 7:30 PM tonight  (Wednesday 4/10/19) at the Columbia University Thomistic Institute on “Dante’s Augustinian and Thomistic World.” Full information is available by clicking here.

Visiting Krakow and Auschwitz on consecutive days induces a kind of existential whiplash. You experience up close one of humanity’s most beautiful cultural achievements and the scene of one of its greatest crimes.

In Krakow, you see the glory of which man’s nature and genius makes him capable.  In Auschwitz, you encounter the horror of which that nature and genius makes him capable.  They are both important lessons.  You can go very wrong affirming the one without the other.

About Auschwitz, I have very little to say – and nothing in particular about the prisoners, whose sufferings I possess neither the wisdom nor the skill to write about.  Horrors of this magnitude require a certain sort of silence from those of us who view them at a safe distance. Only those who were there can speak with authority. I would not presume to.

But I hope I will be permitted two observations, not about the suffering of the prisoners, but about the guards.  Indeed one thing missing from the generally excellent presentations at Auschwitz is anything about the guards.  This deficiency is being rectified, I am told, in a future exhibition.

For now, there is an interesting book recommended by our guide – The Private Lives of the Auschwitz SS – which contains accounts written by the Polish house servants who worked in the Nazi guards’ family homes.

There had been a quiet little rural Polish town on the site of the camp before the war.  It was cleared of its Polish citizens, renamed “Auschwitz” by the Germans, and the houses given to the German officers who – after they left their “day jobs” which involved the systematic de-humanization and extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children – came home in the evening to spend family time with their wives and children.

Read the accounts in Private Lives, and you realize that, far from being the sort of Hannibal Lector types we often imagine, in reality most of these men came home from work and did the things many family men do.  They talked to their wives, played with their children, walked the dog, and busied themselves with groceries, budgets, and dealing with the nanny or the cook.

I couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly have been going through the mind and soul of someone who went to Mass or church each Sunday, read his Bible faithfully, and then went out the next morning to do what the guards did at Auschwitz.  The human potential for selective moral blindness is simply breathtaking and should serve as a constant warning.

Auschwitz shows that we can mistake the worse evil for the good of doing one’s “duty.”  When we fail to see reality as God sees it and see it instead through a bureaucratic or ideological lens, it falsifies reality completely.  We fail to see what is right in front of us – a person, made in the image of God – and see instead what we think that person represents.

I learned two details at Auschwitz of which I had been previously unaware.

First, that as it became clear to the Germans that they were losing the war, the killing in the camps did not slow down; it sped up. More and more resources were diverted from the war effort and put into killing as many Jews as possible – as though the only consideration was, “Can we get the job done before we are forced to surrender?”

Second, as the Russians were advancing on the camp, the Germans blew up all the crematoria and burned the two warehouses containing the mountains of shoes, glasses, suitcases, kitchenware, and prayer shawls they had taken from the Jews when they got off the trains.

There are few things that bring home the extent of the murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau more grimly than seeing that mountain of shoes and suitcases – the suitcases all marked with the name and birth-date of the owner, as if they were going on a trip to summer camp (they were told they were being relocated), some of the shoes no bigger than those you would find on a baby.

Sometimes, when students defend their moral relativism, they say things like “the Nazis must have had their reasons.” (Yes, they did. Bad ones.)  Or they ask, “But what if it seemed right to them?”  (Well, they were wrong, then, weren’t they?)

But here’s the thing about the Germans burning those warehouses and dynamiting the crematoria: it means that the Germans themselves knew very well that what they were doing was wrong.  If they had been proud of their actions, you would expect them to trumpet their “achievements” to the world – as if to say, in the face of any and all opposition: “We know you opposed this. We know you were too timid to do what needed to be done.  But we weren’t.”

Instead, they tried to hide it. That’s why the killing was done in empty places in Poland and not in the major cities of Germany.  That’s why they hid what they were doing under verbal euphemisms.

These German officers lived with their families as though nothing was wrong: just another day at the office. But deep down, they knew.

We should seek to understand what distortion of the human heart and soul could make this detachment possible.

Beware people who say, “We are engaged in a noble task,” but then conceal what they are doing from outside scrutiny or hide it with verbal euphemisms.  What are they hiding, perhaps even from themselves?

Our first obligation as free human beings is to see reality clearly, speak the truth plainly, and act in accord with the full truth about human dignity.  The moral blindness of the guards at Auschwitz should teach us what we’re capable of when we don’t.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.