It is easy to condemn the past, and the people who lived in the past, while we rest comfortably in the future. World War Two was a time of incredible brutality, incredible horror, and some of the things that happened seem otherworldly now, as if they happened in some hyped up made for television movie. But the truth is we will never know how bad it was, how bad as it really was and, for once, what we can imagine isn’t as bad as the truth. For once reality outstrips the imagination. For once we are forced to deal with the idea what who we were, and therefore are, is far more horrible than we would like to admit. I say “for once” because now we have the photographs and the films, and the souvenirs and survivors from hell. The Nazis were nothing if not good keepers of records.
John Demjanjuk was there. We may never know for sure if Demjanjuk was an active participant in the horror or just someone forced into being a pawn for those who were, but we do know he was there. That in and of itself is unimaginable for those of us who were born long after the last rope at Nuremburg stopped swinging. To some, Nuremburg was enough, and we should not hunt old men whose last days will likely be spent wondering if there is an afterlife, and what they will face for their part in horror. Others say that monsters should be hunted to extinction. Never too old and never too far away from the epicenter, even those with just a little blood on their hands should pay, is the thought. Nuremburg was a good start.
On one hand, what good does it do to imprison an old man, who likely will be confused and frightened, not rehabilitated, if such a thing is possible in these types of cases. To live so late in life with such a crime on the conscience must require a certain degree of detachment from the crime. Even if you never killed anyone, even if you just sat in a guard tower all day and never did more than impose a presence upon the prisoners to prevent escape or revolt, even if you were so marginally involved as that, would that transcend the fact that you sat there and did nothing as thousands of men, women and children were murdered?
Kill the Jews or we will kill you and then we will kill them anyway, so why not live?
How many bought that argument? How many made that deal with themselves; that self-preservation was all that could be salvaged from this hell?
How many did not? How many said no, and were summarily shot, and did not get to live in Ohio and have a family?
The other side of this is courage. Can we make it illegal to take the path of least resistance in hell? That is the argument here, is it not? The grainy films show lines of men running into a trench, those men being shot, buried, and the next line of men being forced to run into the trench to be murdered. They were being shot not by Germans, but by their fellow Ukrainians. Men who were their neighbors, their fellow citizens, and fellow human beings shot and killed thousands at the orders of the invaders, but no one pulled a trigger who did not command his own hand.
Susan Denise Atkins murdered a woman who was nine months pregnant and later in life would plead for clemency because she was dying of cancer. She was commanded to kill by Charles Manson, an admirer of Hitler. Atkins died in prison a couple of years ago, blind, in pain, and rotting away from the inside. Is this in anyway what we want when we say that we want justice? Is who we have become in the name of the dead? Will this make us a better people? Will this stop hell? Sharon Tate pleaded for her life, and the life of her unborn child. The last words she heard on this earth were, “I have no sympathy for you, bitch.”
There is a degree of evil that demands that we hunt the monsters to extinction. There is a degree of evil that we must hold up and proclaim so far past what is considered a crime to become a threat to civilization itself. The indiscriminate slaughter of human beings for any reason or no reason is enough for humanity to rise up against such evil. But the slaughter of a people out of sheer hatred and oppressiveness is something that demands even more of us.
To join such evil in the same of self-preservation is to abandon your soul, and forfeit you claim, for any reason, for mercy.
I do not know if I was put on a jury if I could pronounce a sentence upon an old man, trembling and confused, and put him in a jail that would likely become a coffin. But I would try him in public. I would, at the very least, read aloud the charges and perhaps, if he were guilty, that part of him that contained any humanity at all, would at last feel horror. Were he innocent, this old man, then perhaps as the charges were read, he would understand that justice lives still, and in some life after this one, there would be hope yet.
Is this an easy answer or a complete answer or the answer? No. We cannot expect that. This is hell we speak of and the worst evil we can find here is to forget, or to be complacent, or that we believe that we have in some way at all have defeated the greatest of evils by hunting the monsters. No, we cannot hope that we have the answer at all here. We can hope to try and find that answer. We can hope to stamp out small fires before they turn into hell on their own. We can hope that those who survived can find peace. Perhaps that is it after all. If we can take a few souls from hell, and give them some life after the camps, the gas, the experiments and the bullets, perhaps we can say we are all not like the monsters. If we save who we can we can save ourselves.
I am uncertain we can hope for more.