What did you learn about the Nazi Regime and Auschwitz?

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Auschwitz[Written on 28  Jan 2015. This question came from an American friend who had just visited Auschwitz, and posted his photos on facebook. The photo is borrowed from his collection.]

I was born in 1960. My father’s father died as soldier in France. My father only recently told me how: he was conductor of a truck full of gasoline that got blown up. Sad story. His mother lived from very little money, like many other widows did. My other grandma always told us about the Nazi regime and the war and the post-war (she was in the Russian zone). I still consider it a miracle that she survived the Nazi-era since she was a very outspoken person and hated Nazism. You can never say: we were good and the others were bad: Pro-Nazi and contra-Nazi ran though families, friendships, sometimes even world-views. And on which side of the invisible fence would I have been in 1938 when the Nazi – detested and feared by many and welcomed by many – took over Austria? I don’t know on which side of the fence I would have been. [1]

The Hitler Youth groups had probably some very attractive features: comradeship, frienship, adventure. My History teacher was in a real dilemma: he knew all about the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the war. He was a soldier himself, but only for a short period. He told us about the interior struggle to bring his own impression on a good time as a boy and the dark reality into a consistent big picture. I was the first generation that even learned up to WWII and up to 1955 when Austria had the immense fortune to sign the Austrian State Treaty that brought freedom back to my country. The generation of my parents only learned history until WWI. It takes some intellectual and emotional distance to events prior to be able to teach them.

Inspiring stories for me were all that dealt with resistence to the Nazi-regime, first of all the group “The White Rose”, later we learned more about the Catholic resistance and the resistance within the Deutsche Bekennende Kirche (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others). A fascinating Theater Play is “The Devil’s General” by Carl Zuckmayer, showing the struggles of “playing with the regime / resisting the regime / being first fascinated and than deeply hurt” all come in words and characters.

Our past belongs to us. When I was in 1995 in Jerusalem at a Medical Congress, I took one of the Israeli buses and the lady next to me started to talk to me in Hebrew. I made signs that I didn’t understand, she switched to English and then we continued in German: “I simply cannot understand that. I was living near Bratislava (at the Austrian-Slovakian border). Austrians are so kind people, but then, my whole family needed to flee, we went to Russia and from there we came to Israel. How could these very nice Austrian people be so cruel to us?” – I did not have an answer for her. I just told her that I am very sorry for her, and her family, and we also do not understand how such an ideology could split our country’s people so badly. And she continued to tell me about her youth and I could not stop her. I could simply to let her alone and leave at the bus stop I should get off – so I was much too late, and walked quite a while at about 35°-40°C back to the Congress, deeply impressed by this eloquent lady. This is when our past talks to us.

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[1] My friend Beth Bilynskyj shared a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn that expresses this point from his own knowledge:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

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