Thursday, September 16, 2010

The hottest places in hell.

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 241 - 326

Hey, action kind of started to happen! So, the Reich decides that the Plaszow camp and Schindler's factories need to be liquidated and all prisoners "relocated" to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Schindler, as soon as he hears, spends the next few weeks desperately putting together money and goods with which to bribe all and sundry. He manages to get permission to move his factory and establish a new one and an accompanying camp for his workers at a place called Brinnlitz. In order to do so, he composes the titular list of names of the Jews he requires. Just before the move is to take place, Amon Goeth is arrested for embezzlement from the Reich. Schindler is implicated, but, though he's arrested, is let go because of a lack of evidence against him. Meanwhile, Schindler's workers make their way to Brinnlitz, but it takes time; the train cars they're loaded onto stop at Birkenau for several days. The men are only there for three days or so, though they're subjected to very poor conditions for those days, but the women are held up for several weeks, and begin to wonder if they'll ever get out. Eventually they do, but the Gestapo maintains fiercer control over the Brinnlitz camp than Schindler would like, and ends up "selecting" some of the children to go to Birkenau because they're unsuitable for work.

Keneally is making a big deal here about how much money Schindler is spending to get the Jews out of his camps. While that's certainly important, and, in some measure, shouldn't be ignored, I feel like the bigger issue is the risk that he's incurring by attempting it at all. Yes, he's a businessman, and therefore money is important to him, but his life and the lives of many others are continuously at risk during this process. That's the more striking idea to me - he could have bowed his head and let them go rather than put everything and everyone he knows in the path of danger, but instead he looked upon it as his duty to save them.

Really, the horrifying part is how few people did the same. Yes, Schindler is a hero, but he's also doing what common decency demands. Do I blame other people for not standing up for the Jews during World War II? The PC answer, I think, would be to say that conditions were so difficult, and the time so different, that it's hard to understand and therefore also hard to condemn their choices. But you know what? I say bullshit to that. It is not only our duty, but our very definition as human that requires us to act in situations like this. Overseas, it's harder, and I don't really blame people who are far away and fairly ignorant of the realities of situations like this. But when your neighbors are getting dragged out of their front doors and shot in the street? For the love of all that is good in the world, you have got to do something. Whether that's hiding someone, forging papers, swearing that that person is Aryan when he isn't...whatever it takes. There were lots of people who did such things. But there were also lots of people who stood by and watched.

I just don't know. Historical horrors are so difficult this way. American slavery causes me similar problems: conventional wisdom seems to say that we extend a certain amount of understanding to the people who practiced it, since it was the social atmosphere of the time. On a conceptual level, I suppose I can understand that, but on a practical level, I don't excuse them. You don't keep someone in chains and beat them for not working for you, you don't separate husbands and wives to make a profit, and you don't exploit people for your own gain, torturing and maiming them on a daily basis, and still get to call yourself a respectable human being. I'm sorry, but cultural and social mores aren't a free pass to forgiveness. They sure as hell weren't for the Nazis. If no one stands up against them and calls them wrong, then we will never change.

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