Thursday, May 22, 2014


We watched our recording of last week's public television broadcast of Escape from a Nazi Death Camp last night.  It's a well-made docudrama, blending dramatic scenes with short video clips of survivors of this remarkable event, now in their eighties and nineties.  They are among the 8 living survivors of a camp that was razed on the orders of an enraged Hitler after the escape attempt.  The desperate effort to flee the well-guarded installation was provoked in part by the rumor that there were plans to soon liquidate the entire camp, leaving no survivors.  At the time, there were 600 prisoners in the camp; an astounding 300 made it through the fence, after the carefully-planned assassination of a number of SS officers.   Many of the escapees were blown up immediately in the surrounding minefield, recently added on Himmler's order as an extra precaution against escape attempts.  But their deaths allowed some 150 more to elude the Nazi gunfire and run off into the surrounding woods and fields, where they found at least temporary freedom.  Of these, all but 50 were hunted down, rounded up, or turned in by the local citizenry, and were immediately killed.  The 300 who remained in the camp were sent without further delay to the gas chambers, and the Nazis attempted to erase all memory of the place, lest others hear of it and follow the example of these courageous few.

As always, watching such stories play out, we're left with the (eventually unanswerable) question: how could human beings be reduced to the kind of barbarity required to round up millions of their fellow humans, men, women and children, and herd them into the trains that transported them to almost certain death?  How could they make those arbitrary choices, between forced labor on the one hand--and the gas chamber on the other?  How could they exterminate hundreds at a time in those gas chambers, and reduce their remains to ash and smoke?

That the Nazis were not alone in their brutality is witnessed by subsequent atrocities.  We say "never again"... but then there was Rwanda.  There was Cambodia, there was Bosnia.  Today, there is Nigeria, where innocent girls are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and innocent people are bombed into oblivion.  The history of human inhumanity seems never to have an end.

The question that haunts me is this one: do we all have this monster in us, waiting to be released?  Does each of us have the potential to become a Nazi death camp guard?  An Idi Amin?  A 9/11 bomber?  All the rosy talk about "Buddha nature" sounds like the stuff of fairy tale when held up against the sorry tale of human history.  Do we have, buried in our psyche, as great a potential for evil as for good?  And what triggers the one as opposed to the other?  And is there a way, finally, to rid ourselves of that monstrous gene that engages in murder and destruction?  Can compassion win out over greed, ignorance and delusion?  I fear that I will not be around on this planet for long enough to find out.  And from the perspective of our current history, it appears that there's a real possibility that none of us will...

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