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Friday, June 12, 2009

Anne Frank at 80: Reflections

The Frank family in Amsterdam, before they went into hiding;
just an ordinary family like yours or mine, exterminated.

So last night I was surfing around Wikipedia articles to entertain myself - yeah, that's the kind of nerdy guy I am - when by some chance I landed on the Anne Frank article. From there, I got into reading about her book, Diary of a Young Girl, and the website of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, as well as the Holocaust Museum, the scene of this week's tragic shooting, and other related sites.

I was already familiar with Anne's story, though I never read the whole book of hers; I did read some excerpts many years ago, probly in a high school English book. And at some point I saw a clip or two from the movie, but never saw the whole film. It's a powerful story that draws you in and doesn't easily let go of you; think I may order me a copy of the book, and I see now there is an unexpurgated version that contains the entire diary, not just the parts her dad originally published, which would be interesting to read.

And as I was browsing through all of this stuff, sitting up fascinated way past midnight, I suddenly realized that today would have been Anne's 80th birthday. An odd coincidence; a bit spooky too. An artist has come up with a photo to show what she might have looked like now, check it out.

A couple years ago I finally got around to watching Schindler's List on video. Boys, if you haven't ever seen it, you just must. I'd already long since read up on Schindler, and of course I was already well informed about the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. I can remember way back in elementary school, around 4th or 5th grade, getting interested in both World War I and World War II, and I checked out a bunch of books from the library on those topics. I remember sitting on the school bus reading them on the way home.

In the rare moments of free time in class - I think the school day was more regimented then than it is now - we boys used to play "War" by the simple means of drawing on a piece of notebook paper: with our pencil, we'd outline a landscape and fill in with tanks and guns, flames coming out of a cannon's mouth, pointy-edged explosions, arcing shells bursting on an enemy's camp, and so on. It served to pass the time just as well as any high-tech gadget kids have nowadays. Maybe better.

But I digress. The point is, I have known all my life, pretty much, what nightmare horrors went on in the concentration camps; but that book knowledge seems far away, remote from your own life here and now. Spielberg's great film brings it home, puts it in your face; puts you there, cornered, captured, helpless. A gut-wrenching experience. But one that you simply must not miss.

Because it brings you face to face with the deepest questions of humanity, that you simply must not avoid: Who is my neighbor? Am I my brother's keeper? What is truth? What does God require of me?

Shirk these questions off, ignore them, live only for yourself and your wants, and you are merely a two-legged animal, not a man.

And forgive me, fellas, if I sound pushy; but at least once in your life you just must read an entire book written by someone who was actually there, and survived the hatred and the horror. Nowadays you don't even have to drive to the bookstore, you can google up all kinds of such books and testimonies at home, in the comfort of your air conditioning and your pj's.

If you don't know where to start, I can recommend this account that I couldn't tear myself away from till dawn this morning: The Dentist of Auschwitz, by Benjamin Jacobs. Here's one little excerpt that makes you ponder the evil, or the very easy acceptance of evil, that resides within us all. That's the point of why I say you must see and read these films and books: if you come away thinking, well that's all about those people, you have totally missed the point and wasted your time, buddy.

It's not about the evil other people are capable of: it's about the evil you are capable of, given the right time and place and circumstances. You and me and any one of us - as this excerpt shows:

A few weeks after Dr. König left, another dentist came to oversee the dental station. Dr. Schatz was in his midforties, mild-mannered, friendly, and slightly hunched over. When I recited the camp's required litany, he said that I need not say it for him. Nor did he object to my continuing to treat the guards. But one time he came in very upset. He threw his hat on the chair disgustedly and walked through the dental station, his hand clutched behind his back. "Do you know what they made me do?" he said, looking straight at me, disturbed. . . .

He held out the keys to his ambulance and said, "Go and look at the instrument panel. Then you will see what I mean." His vehicle was parked just a couple of steps from the door. I took his keys and went outside. I opened the driver's door and looked at the instrument panel, which had the usual levers: choke, lights, wipers, heater, and so on. Then I noticed a white lever below with the word Gas on it. Just below that was an inscription: "Achtung, nur im Betrieb gebrauchen" (Caution, use only when in motion). I knew then what it meant. . . .

"Don't you know what they are doing to you people?" And without waiting for an answer, he became specific. "By pulling this lever, we kill you people! With this lever the driver can divert the exhaust flow to the passenger section of the vehicle. The carbon monoxide then kills everyone in it. That is what we doctors are ordered to do." I looked at his disturbed face. It showed anger and disgust as he poured out his pent-up emotions. He then proceeded to tell me that a lot of our people had already been victims in that very vehicle. . . .

Hearing an SS doctor being that explicit about their crimes came as a great surprise to me. As he continued blasting the Führer, I still pretended to have no opinion about it, although I had lots of questions for him. What puzzled me was why a decent human being like he seemed to be would submit to the Nazis. "Dr. Schatz, was it right to see human beings trampled, just because they are different? Some, no doubt, were your friends and neighbors. Was it OK, Dr. Schatz, to see people disinherited, so that yours would benefit? Did you approve of all this while you were winning the war? You must have known that you were placing your trust in an unscrupulous man. Did you condone Hitler's ideas at first? Did you not think that eventually there would be a price to pay?"

Although his confessions were frank and he had renounced the Führer, he still bore the disgrace of being an SS man. I liked what he said and looked forward to his weekly stops. From that day on he acted as if we were equal. I often thought that people like Dr. Schatz would bring the Nazi regime to its knees. As we know now, that did not happen. Hitler was not defeated from within. In spite of what Hitler had done, the German people continued to approve of him even when he was not victorious.
Don't be so quick to say you'd have been any different. Eighty million people in Germany were led down the slow, gentle path to hate and destruction by a few dozen fanatics. Hate is contagious; hate is comfortable; hate is easy.

It's love that's hard; but love is what makes you fully human. Hate just makes you a wild beast - and it's equally true for people on the right and on the left of the political spectrum, and people of every race and religion, as history has shown all too well.

Hate comes easy. But is that all you're here for?

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