Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hell and Auschwitz

The oldest Holocaust survivor, Antoni Dobrowolski, who went to Auschwitz as punishment for teaching young poles has died at 108. The article quotes him as saying that Auschwitz was "worse than Dante's hell".

My initial reaction was that this is surely an overstatement. But a moment's reflection suggests that Dobrowolski is correct, at least as concerning hell itself (I won't comment on Dante's hell, since I am no Dante scholar). Hell is a place that upholds the dignity of its inmates by acknowledging their autonomous choice for evil, giving them justice and limiting their downward moral slide, while the concentration camps aimed at the destruction of autonomy and dignity. It is a terrifying thought that we humans can produce something worse than hell.

But at the same time, we have to remember that in a choice between hell and Auschwitz, we should choose against hell. So perhaps hell is worse? Or maybe we need to distinguish: in itself, in some sense, Auschwitz is worse, but hell also guarantees lack of union with God, while Auschwitz is compatible with union with God, just as the Cross was.


Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Also just passed away is Wilhelm Brasse, at the age of 95. A Polish photographer who was arrested and sent to Auschwitz early in World War II, he was put to work documenting his fellow prisoners, an emotionally devastating task that tormented him long after his liberation. Full article here:


Then there is the story of the brave Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance, who volunteered to get arrested and placed into Auschwitz to gather information on what went on inside and to organize resistance from within. His story is told here:


Saint Edith Stein and Saint Maximillian Kolbe were martyred in Auschwitz.

In high school junior year, one of our social studies teachers showed us the film “Night and Fog”. The film was almost entirely actual footage of Nazi death camps feature Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. It was horribly gruesome. The next year, my senior year, I had the same teacher again, and again he showed us “Night and Fog”. This time throughout the whole film I kept a face buried in my hands so that I would not see those scenes again. The student sitting behind me was laughing uncontrollably. I didn’t know back then that inappropriate laughter was a sign of someone losing it. I kicked him in the legs several times trying to get him to stop. He would stop for a while, then start laughing again, and then I would kick him again until he stopped. This went on several times during the film. The scene from Night and Fog burned indelibly in my memory was that of a huge pile of emaciated corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave. This teacher was doing this to educate us about certain things so we wouldn’t be ignorant. To this day, I believe he did the right thing and us a great service even though we got the snots traumatized out of us. To anyone who hasn’t seen Night and Fog, I highly recommend this film. I will say this though, you do require a very strong stomach for it. It is far more gruesome than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. DO NOT under any circumstances show it to anyone younger than 15, and only with grave reservations to anyone between 15 and 18. Anyone showing "Night and Fog" to minors under 15 is guilty of serious child abuse, and I do mean it.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Whenever camps like Auschwitz are mentioned, my mother would always ask me to tell about what happened in Latvia and the Baltic States under the Soviets. I will not be silent and so here it is:

My maternal grandmother told me that at the outbreak of World War II she encountered a Polish officer who had fled into Latvia. She told me she had no understanding about why the man was so terrified. She was to soon find out. In 1940-1941, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and set about to crush the nationalism within those countries and to rid them of “Anti-Soviet elements” with an absolute terror. On the night of June 13th to 14th, 1941, thousands of people, men, women, children, elderly, infants were rounded up in a night of terror and shipped off to the Gulag. My mother’s best friend N was among those deported with her family because her father was a judge. N was 14 at the time of her deportation. N and her mother survived the conditions in Siberia, her father did not. Later when N related her experiences, she said that when the Cheka showed up she was so terrified that she was about to be executed that she thought of killing herself by jumping from the second floor window. The first to die of harsh conditions of the train ride to Siberia and the Gulag were the infants and the elderly. The men were separated from their families and most of them died from overwork from excessive forced labor in the Siberian interior. After World War II, N and her mother were given amnesty to return back to Latvia. However we knew none of this. My family was separated from them at this time. For some 40 years we believed that N was dead, that no way a sweet girl like her would have survived in Siberia. Likewise N didn’t know that my mother and maternal grandmother were still alive until after she read my grandmother’s obituary in the Latvian Newspaper “Laiks” in 1985. In 1986 my mother, sister, and I went to visit her in Vancouver. And she told us her story. I didn’t know how I would react. I was worried on the way out there that I would be sickened by the horror of it all. What I didn’t expect was that I would feel some kind of courage deep down inside listening to her story.

The Soviet Occupation of 1940-1941 was called “Baigais Gads” or “Year of Horror”. You never knew if and when the Cheka will come for you to take you away. Or even why. Anything could cause you to be taken away never to be seen again. My maternal grandmother was a school teacher in Riga. On one occasion some of her naughty pupils used crayons to rework the beards and mustaches on the portraits of the unholy trinity of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. My grandmother went into a panic as she quickly disposed of the pictures, replacing them with new ones and hoping the wrong person didn’t see it. When I tell this story to people, particularly younger, people, they just cannot understand why an innocent prank like this could have deadly consequences. On one occasion my grandmother was sitting in a room reading a book, when she heard approaching footsteps. She sat frozen with fear listening to the footsteps coming closer, wondering if they were coming for her. The footsteps went past her window because they were after someone else. That Christmas during the Soviet Occupation, my maternal grandfather cut a very, very small Christmas tree which he was able to hide inside his coat. He took it home, and my family closed all the window shades, set the tree up on a table and everyone was very very quiet. It was a silent night.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

The Cheka was particularly vicious in dealing with their victims. When the Germans pushed the Soviets out of the Baltic States, an NKVD torture chamber was opened up. Inside were drains for catching blood as victims had their ears or noses chopped off. Victims were mutilated by the NKVD in some gruesome way before they were executed. I remember the icy fear I felt seeing the sickening pictures of the mutilated face of the founder of the Latvian Scouting movement General Karlis Goppers in Latvian publications. Clergy were also executed, and my father would tell me about a Catholic priest that had been boiled alive by the Chekists.

Then there was the tragic case of my grandmother’s sister’s husband. He was raised In a devout Christian home and as an adult he embraced Marxism. He was not a bad person, he was a good person and would give you the shirt off his back if you had no clothes. He was an idealist committed to Communism as were many people back then. No one in my family including my great grandfather could tell him that he was involved with something very bad. He was an idealist, totally blind to the dark forces within the Communist system. After his first wife, my grandmother’s sister passed away from tuberculosis, he married a second time and had children with his second wife. He disappeared along with his whole family in one of Stalin’s purges. Neither he nor anyone in his family was ever seen nor heard from again. It was these idealist Communists who Stalin killed off first.

As a child, the one thing I learned from my family telling me all these things is that paranoia is good for you. It kept you from death and from fates far worse.