Monday, March 21, 2016

The Bergen-Belsen Heap by Mark Celinscak

In 2007, Simone Veil, a French survivor of Bergen-Belsen who later became a renown lawyer and politician, addressed the United Nations in New York during the International Day of Commemoration in the Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. “I can still see the horrified faces of the soldiers,” she said of the troops who entered thee Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945, adding solemnly that there were “no cries of joy on our part –only silence and tears.”

According to the nineteenth-century Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Medel  Morgenztern of Kotzk,  there were three ways open to a man who is in sorrow. He who stands on the normal rung weeps, he who stands higher is silent, but he who stands on the topmost rung converts his sorrow into song. For Kotzker Rebbe, the latter is the preferable response; but  Leslie Hardman of the Canadian Chaplain Services  could not remain steadfast, nor could he feel admiration for a higher power. “I could not accept,” he explained, “with perfect faith and equanimity as Aaron did, nor could I sing praises to God.” When face to face with overwhelming misery, he could not transcend the ‘rungs’ of his grief. “Keep a stiff upper lip, Padre” was the universal recommendation but it seemed utterly impossible. In those early days of ‘liberation’ Hardman became ill with dysentery, depressed and openly wept.

Among the Allied forces there were no plans to liberate the camps.  Reports of the crimes and the location of some camps were known by the Allied governments relatively early into the war and reconnaissance missions provided aerial views of Bergen-Belsen in 1942 and again in 1944, the specific functions of the Nazi camps were not well known. Despite basic knowledge of Nazis crimes, Allied governments were not prepared to meet the challenges that they ultimately faced during the spring and summer of 1945. They failed to comprehend the extremely desperate needs of the victims who had  suffered at the hands of the Nazis. And for the small number of government officials who did know the specifics of the crimes, many either could not accept it or refused to act. After securing a cease fire with beleaguered German Army units in the neighborhood, British and Canadian troops simply arrived at the gates of the camp, completely unprepared for what they were about to witness and the measures that would be required to rescue 60,000 people from what many could only describe as an inferno. In the first weeks of Allied occupation 19,000  of the inmates at Bergen-Belsen died.

The coverage in both Britain and Canada of  crimes occurring in Nazi Europe during the war years, while scant, are easily discovered and relatively accurate. There was, however, a chasm between what was “known” and what was “believed.” The fact that some information has been mentioned once or even a hundred times in secret reports or in mass circulation newspapers does not necessarily mean that it has been accepted or understood. Big figures become statistics, and statistics rarely have profound psychological impacts.

From the fall of 1944 to Mach 1945, Canadian coverage of crimes in Europe was almost non-existent. A rare feature was the September 1944 issue of Maclean’s magazine,an American reporter’s article “Mass Murder!" her observations while traveling with the Red Army. “Jews of eastern-Europe,” she wrote, ‘have been slaughtered –destroyed by a plan pursued with German thoroughness – until almost none remain." During the fall of 1944 and early winter of 1945, camps were being liberated by the Red Army. Upon  discovering  Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka,   the Soviets issued no major press releases. The publicity of the liberation of Auschwitz was minimal. Because the reports that did get through were perceived to come from less-than-trusted sources, news of the camps made little impression on the public’s imagination. It would take the liberation of the camps in western Europe by the apparently more reliable American, British and Canadian forces before the horrors were believed and appreciated.

Anticipation is prior imagination and the extent of one’s capacity to imagine a profound event has important bearing upon the way one is able to respond. For Allied troops arriving at Bergen-Belsen, the experience was one of shock and profound disturbance. While warnings were issued to many who entered the camps in the days that followed ,detailed reports, photographs and moving images had not yet been distributed and many found it difficult  to perceive or prepare themselves for such horrors. Indeed, those who arrived three to even seven days after the surrender of the camp, viewed virtually the same conditions of those who, on the afternoon of 15 April, first entered the camp.

Bergen-Belsen was a ‘space of abjection.” Put simply, the ‘abject” is that which is both part of and thoroughly rejected by the self. The writings of theorist and critic Julia Kristeva provide substantial insight on the complex notion of abjection. To operate as a social being, one must expel or do away with elements which the collective order considers contaminated or impure, such as waste, excrement, blood, vomit, bodily fluids, cadavers and the like. ‘Refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These bodily fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.” However, these elements, which we try to cast off, can never be completely disregarded. They linger and remain, haunting us – the subject, the self – in different ways, threatening with the suspension or interruption  of our very being. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben acknowledges, “Whoever experiences disgust has in some way recognized himself in the object of his loathing and fears being recognized in turn.”

  Kristeva contends that the abject “draws me towards that place where boundaries are erased and meaning collapses.” Thousands of corpses scattered around the camp grounds, inside and outside the decrepit barracks, along with the waste, excrement and filth, disturbed, horrified and sickened military personnel. And yet many were fascinated, drawn to the site of abjection, despite warnings of the horrors. Bergen-Belen became kind of a ‘tourist attraction’ for troops passing through the area.

For many inside the camp and working against the unfolding catastrophe, with limited personnel and scant resources, irony and sarcasm became a way of coping. Comments were often harsh, cruel, untimely, frequently deployed as type of cognitive wall, similar to the zoomorphic language and animal metaphors used in letters home and in memoirs by those who first entered the camp. Sarcasm, irony and dark humor were rhetorical devices used in order to keep a distance, either physically or psychologically from the desperate situation. It helped them to achieve the detachment necessary to complete their assigned tasks such as choosing who should receive immediate medical attention and thus perhaps live while  leaving others  where they lay to face certain death, witnessing the last breaths of orphaned children, or burying thousands of unidentifiable people  in mass graves.

While the crimes in Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps were being publicized through-out the Western world, a clinical study was taking place at the University of Minnesota under the lead investigator and American scientist Dr Ancey Keys. Beginning in 1944, in what was known as the “Minnesota Starvation Experiment,” Keys and his team scrutinized the physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged malnourishment in healthy men. The findings of the project were intended to later guide the Allied powers in their dealings with the victims of famine in Europe and Asia at the end of the Second World War.  Formally published in 1950, the work was instantly regarded as a landmark treatise on the subject. As biochemist Jack Drummond – an advisor to the Ministry of Food and nutrition consultant to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and the Allied Control Commissions-acknowledges in the book’s forward, “My admiration was tinted with only one regret, that the investigation had not begun three years earlier.”

It is interesting to observe the overlap in the findings of Dr. Keys study and the candid accounts of Allied medical personnel.  Canadian John F. McCreary served with the RCAF Nutrition Group during the war. In 1944 McCreary and his team were seconded to SHAEF to conduct clinical surveys of children in various concentration camps across northwest Europe. They traveled to Bergen-Belsen in early May 1945 to survey the conditions of the inmates.  Upon his return to Canada, McCreary gave an address at the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto. According to McCreary, the internees could be divided into three main groups: the first cluster included recent arrivals that, because of their brief time in the camps, remained relatively fit. The third and final group involved those too ill to digest any type of food and as a result had the highest death rate. In regards to the second group of inmates, McCreary describes them as those who had deteriorated physically but, with proper diet, could once again regain their bodily strength. However, their mental recovery would take additional time. In McCreary’s point of view, this group

had been so disturbed mentally by so long a period in the camp that their mental return was far from as rapid as their physical return. When we saw the people in the camp some had even lost their ability to see. They had of course no idea what their names were. They had no idea where they came from. They didn’t know how long they had been there. They were simply mute. They were the people whose only noise was a high pitched cry. There we were thousands of these people and they represented the most disturbing sight to be seen in the Belsen concentration camp. It looked for a long time as if there was absolutely no hope of any return to normal for this group.

Complicity in these crimes and attempts at judging the guilty became subjects of some concern in the immediate responses of Allied personnel to the camp and all subsequent narratives of the holocaust.  [In the author’s view] one scholar in particular offers a useful model in which to investigate the context of such judgments. A native of northern Germany, Karl Jaspers was a psychiatrist and philosopher. He wrote his treatise – ‘The Question of German Guilt” (1947)- for a population, of which he was one, who lived through and mostly supported, albeit often submissively, the Nazis regime.

Jaspers had a fourfold schema on the question of guilt: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical. The first, criminal guilt, includes offenses that violate the law, and whose prosecution remains with the Courts [like murder, battery, robbery, kidnapping and extortion]. The second type of guilt, political guilt, involves all citizens of a modern state. The citizens of the state are accountable for the conduct of their governments. Jurisdiction, in this instance, rests with the victorious  powers. Moral guilt encompasses personal responsibility for one’s actions. In this instance, jurisdiction involves one’s own conscience. Morally, an individual can condemn only his or herself and no one else. Finally, the fourth type, metaphysical guilt, involves everyone’s responsibility for the crimes and injustices in the world. This is especially true for offenses of which one has knowledge or that were committed in one’s presence. According to Jaspers, jurisdiction for metaphysical guilt remains with “God alone.” Jaspers did not conclude that he himself was criminally guilty of Nazis crimes.

Allied troops occupying Bergen-Belsen had no question in their mind that what they witnessed was a crime. They differed in their opinions as to how guilt should be assigned. [In my view, it is remarkable how few summary, extra-judicial executions actually occurred, how few people were blamed in a political sense. As ever, the question of moral responsibility and the burdens of wounded conscience were easily displaced as many Germans were able, in post-war conditions, to view themselves as victims. The judgment of God is pending.]

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