Simon Wiesenthal

I had spelled his name wrong when I originally posted this. Sorry. Besides corrected spelling, you get a brief biography that I hadn't found before. It's at the end, thanks to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.

Here we go.

I had just posted about Bruce Ivins, the anthrax murder suspect, and his split personality when the opportunity to watch a documentary about famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, came my way. If you can find it, I'd recommend it over say, Wall-E, or anything else I've seen recently. I Have Never Forgotten You, the Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal.

What's interesting to me about this is the 68 year old question,
How could SS officers, obviously men who had lives, who had children and wives, who laughed and sang, who cared about others, DO WHAT THEY DID?
In case you're thinking that the Holocaust never happened, read CNN's piece on James Hoyt, a camp liberator who passed away Monday. Mr. Hoyt told everyone what he saw at the camps.

Richard Trank and Marvin Hier wrote the documentary about the Austrian-Jewish architect and engineer who turned to Nazi hunting after surviving the Holocaust. For a full synopsis of the film, click here.

Nicole Kidman narrates, if you need star power, and Ben Kingsley has one of his most powerful performances, just being himself, talking about what it was like working with Mr. Wiesenthal, being Mr. Wiesenthal in Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989) (TV). Mr. Kingsley's awe and respect for his hero are worth the watch alone.

But it will make you feel like you're not doing a heck of a lot with your life. I like that kind of motivation, personally.

It doesn't make any sense, the Holocaust. How did the SS officers don two caps? Murderers by day. Husbands and fathers by night. They weren't mentally ill like Bruce Ivins. Mr. Ivins could be a regular guy, too, a good man, a charitable, laughing individual, who wore other hats. But he was sick, we know that from his history. The Nazis, for the most part (there's always a bell curve, a normal distribution when it comes to populations) were not.

All this knowledge, and here I am, totally unable to grasp this. Someone help me. I really don't get it.

I watched two documentaries on Sunday, both totally recommended if you need a good cry and a reality check (that relativistic thing). Besides the Wiesenthal documentary, Scrapbooks from Hell, portraits of an SS officer, will give you pause. Carl Hoeker, a good-looking family man by night, chose which Jews would go to the gas-chambers and which would go to work, starvation, and a slower death, by day.

“It shows the killers as humans…this scrapbook forces us to look at the killers in a way that I think pushes our comfort level where we don’t want it to go.” says Sara J. Bloomfield, Director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on camera. National Geographic aired the documentary on April 27, 2008. They should run it again.

How about a little history?
The death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and especially the year of 1944 is considered the epicenter for the mass killings during the Holocaust, a single camp of several where the Nazis and their collaborators murdered more than one million people.

Six such death camps existed: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Large-scale murder was conducted by poisonous gas and then body disposal through cremation was conducted systematically by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler's SS men.

Victims were deported to these centers from Western Europe and from the ghettos in Eastern Europe which the Nazis had established.

Millions died in the ghettos and concentration camps as a result of forced labor, starvation, exposure, brutality, disease, and execution.

This documentary reveals authenticated rare photos of Dr. Josef Mengele, The Angel Of Death, who possessed both a PhD and an MD. Mengele is photographed smiling at Auschwitz where he put his education to use by torturing men, women and children in medical experiments of unspeakable horror during the Holocaust.

It is historical fact that Mengele had put his victims into pressure chambers, administered various drugs, castrated them or froze his test subjects to death. Children were exposed to experimental surgeries performed without anesthesia
Thanks for that, Monsters and Critics . (The sanitized version, especially when it comes to Mengele's dastardly deeds. You can see the actual scrapbook, too.

It's distressing and none of it should be lost, which is why the Wiesenthal documentary, I Have Never Forgotten You is titled exactly that. Wiesenthal lost his entire family, with the exception of a few distant cousins, in the Holocaust. He was a survivor.*

Someone told him, at liberation, that now he could go back to creating buildings. He said,
How can you presume that anyone, after what he or she has just seen and experienced, can return to anything?
At liberation, he asked if he could help, probably weighing in at 75 pounds. The Americans wanted to laugh, but they didn't. They said, "Write it all down. You've seen so much."

He proceeded with an extensive list of Nazi perpetrators, their names and the dates that they perpetrated their heartless mayhem, the names of the Nazis and their exact crimes, and presented this to the liberators of the camps. This, the beginning of the career of the greatest, perhaps only, true Nazi hunter.

It is a mesmerizing story. And we still ask ourselves, Why did they do it?

Following orders, they said.

As I kvetched about this the other day, someone glibly remarked, "Why is this so hard to understand? The Nazis saw their jobs as we see our jobs. They thought they were only doing their jobs. More importantly, the job would only take a couple of years, and then they would move on, move up. Just like us."


My son says that at the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial in Israel he saw a poster that quoted an SS officer as saying, "It's hard at first (killing), but it gets easier, you know, once you get the hang of it."

I'm thinking I'd rather die. I'd rather die than take on any task that is egregious, unconscionable. How could they do it for a living?

Or is it group think? The same dynamic that characterizes gang rapes?

Someone tell me.


*The Columbia Encyclopedia also tells us the following

Simon Wiesenthal lived from 1908-2005. He was born in Butschatsch, Austria-Hungary (now Buchach, Ukraine), received (1932) an architectural engineering degree in Prague, practiced in Lvov, Poland/Ukraine.

Sent to a forced labor camp upon Nazi invasion, recaptured after an escape, Mr. Wiesenthal had been to several concentration camps by the end of the war, at which time 89 of his relatives had been slaughtered.

He devoting his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, and established a center for this purpose in Linz, Austria. In 1961 he established the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. Mr. Wiesenthal located approximately 1,100 war criminals, many of whom were tried and convicted, and authored KZ Mathausen (1947), The Murderers among Us (1967), and Max and Helen (1982).

For more, see The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2008


Jack said…
The really scary thing to me is that I don't think that many of them were all that different from the people we interact with on a daily basis.

I think that there are a lot of people who just go along with whatever is happening around them.

Not a very heartwarming thought, but...
Syd said…
Have you read The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide? Robert Lifton analyzes what turns "ordinary human beings" into psycho-pathological killers. It appears that bureaucracy and fanaticism were two ingredients. Another book to precede this one is *The Beast Awakens* .

Genocide could be a potential act of any nation. With the focus on power, authority, and the seeking of glory appear to be reasons given by Lifton for the atrocities that the Nazi's committed. And there is also the unwillingness to ask the important questions that hold us all accountable for our behavior when we are asked to compromise our most cherished values, those which make us human, when we are called to choose the path of evil.

"In light of the recent record of professionals engaged in mass killing," says the author, "can this be the century of doubling?" Doubling, says Lifton, is the psychological ability to separate your "human" self from your "shadow" self so that you can do what you have to do and remain able to connect with your family and live your life.

How close is that to maintaining a "professional" facade that allows a doctor to perform surgery by cutting into another human being's body while maintaining an "objectivity" that makes that possible (in the positive sense), or the knowledge that a major corporate executive has that his company is polluting the nearby water, thereby causing cancer in infants while still being able to face his children as they graduate from Ivy League colleges? "That wasn't me," the thinking goes, "It's just my job. It's just what I had to do to make a living."

Lifton focuses a lot on the psychological concept of "doubling" as it applies to the Nazis ability to do what had to be done in the "Auschwitz" context of life as the Nazis lived it. "The Auschwitz self could then become an absolute creature of context, and there is no better way to abnegate moral responsibility of any kind." Dissociation is another word for it. It's nothing knew. And it's not an excuse. It may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse.

"We thus find ourselves," says Lifton, "returning to the recognition that most of what Nazi doctors did would be within the potential capability -- at least under certain conditions -- of most doctors and of most people." We have to look at this. We have to know it. To not look, to not know, is to have it happen again, all over again, and to not even see it coming.

"If there is any truth to the psychological and moral judgments we make about the specific and unique characteristics of Nazi mass murder, we are bound to derive from them principles that apply more widely -- principles that speak to the extraordinary threat and potential for self-annihilation that now haunt mankind."

Killing to heal is another interesting concept that Lifton explores, and one that factors even more ironically into current controversies: "We had to destroy the village to save it," for example. The AIDS dissident point of view is another item that may easily be seen through the lens of Lifton's book, though he never does refer to it. Even more interesting is the comparison to war: "War is the only accepted which there is a parallel healing-killing paradox. One has to kill the enemy in order to preserve -- to "heal" -- one's people, one's military unit, oneself.
Anonymous said…
we studied some of this in religious professor called it demonic doubling where the self is spilit in half and the good side goes to church and plays with children and the bad side dehumanizes the oppressed people and they become paperwork and no one really cares about paperwork.
nashbabe said…
I am familiar with a family that was suing a company for toxic mold that they allege (and quite possibly accurately) harmed their children significantly. At the same time the father was head of a company that made extremely ill-advised safety decisions that led directly to the death of ten or eleven very frail people (I can't recall which). How interesting that the father has placed his huge, luxurious home in his young children's names, I suppose to avoid the plaintiff's possible claim in their lawsuits...ah, the irony of it all.

BTW, post all you's your blog, after all...
Anonymous said…
you should watch weapons of the spirit a documentary from the same time--how ordinary people did ordinary people did ordinary things and saved thousands of women and children and men...we had to watch it in class. very good very good !
Fallen said…
I've thought about this on occassion and am always reminded of the Milgraam experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The Milgraam experiment is a classic study in submitting to authority. Participants were willing to shock another human being, even to the maximum of 450 volts, because instructed to.

In the Stanford prison experiment participants quickly adapted to their role as prisoner or guard and acted accordingly.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't wonder how the SS could possibly have done what they did and question that it was just "group think" but clearly social psychology does lend credence to the fact that our obedience to authority does play a role, along with the group mentality.
Reas Kroicowl said…
I think any nation, including our own, is quite capable of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. It's nationalism run amok and a frightening thing indeed (which is why I don't trust uber-patriots. And I don't pledge allegiance to the flag, either.) Ultimately, nations are nothing but a collection of humans, and let's face it: we don't have a great track record.

And let's not forget this sort of thing has occurred since: Rwanda, Bosnia, Kurdistan, Darfur. What we did to the Native Americans could be considered genocide.

I don't ask: how could this happen? How can people do this kind of thing? We've been doing it to each other since the dawn of time. We have hatred down to a fine art.
Isle Dance said…
And shockingly, similar mass killings have continued around the world. What will I say to explain all of this in twenty or fifty years? How will I justify doing absolutely nothing to stop it, while knowing it was happening? Does thinking this now, help us understand?

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, explains these violence things a bit. Walking through memorials like can help people see the reality. But still.

And while I know some cannot fathom relating the two - yet we know the number one link to a human murderer is that they first enjoyed/took part in the killings of animals - since I stopped eating animals products, I've begun to feel quite sickened by all of the animals I previously killed/ate. No, I'm not an animal activist. And I never enjoyed killing them. But I enjoyed eating them. And plenty of others find it appealing to kill them. And if they just stopped, they might see all of these things more clearly. No?
pinky said…
Look what happened in Rawanda. Has anything changed? Very sad indeed.
cb said…
Perhaps when you are able to rationally differentiate between yourself and your family and those of a different racial background and are so convinced that it is not like killing anymore. I don't know, I can't understand it except that the easier it is to detach self, perhaps the easier it is to inflict pain.
When you see people as people rather than of a particular (different) race, culture, religion - it is much more difficult to cause harm. Emphasis on difference divides.
Catatonic Kid said…
I wish I knew. I wish I had had the answer when my Great Aunt relived Auschwitz in our living room. I wish I could've comforted her with some wisdom, some reason, some sense. But it is not something that should make sense is the only thought I have. There may be some twisted logic to it, somewhere but I'm not sure I want to know what that is. I'm not sure it would make the cold less bitter.

We look for reason in atrocity but what makes it so terrifying is that it is horror perpetrated largely for the sake of horror - in the moment anyway. All the 'reasons' given later are excuses, lies, delusions even sometimes. We can all compartementalise, we can all dissociate, we can all hold mutually exclusive ideas as true but those who choose it, consciously. Choose a life like that, day after day and moreover deny that human life is human at all. No, that I will never understand. I refuse to.
Anonymous said…
My father who was in the army told me once that he could make any group of people man a concentration camp (not that he wanted to, we were were talking about a book I was reading). It is a mixture, I think, of group think and being made to feel what you do is alright and sanctioned. Power is only safe with a few people. Years ago I helped out in a nursing home and I repeatedly saw nurses jamming spoons against old sick peoples mouths and other petty mean actions.
Nobody likes a victim. Makes you way to uncomfortable. Easier to despise them and think it's their fault - that it was a moral deficiency that put them in this position.
It's everywhere, different levels, but everywhere. Horrible.
pinky said…
Rawanda. Scary. The Armenians have been slaughtered for many years by the Turks too. Very unsettling. I really liked reading simon W.
I can't imagine torturing and killing people. I still get nauseated and sweaty when I have to do (necesary) uncomfortable procedures to patients.

You know, there are some people in any group who are less bothered by violence and more affected by propaganda than the rest of the group. I suspect that one of the factors in the "success" (somehow that seems like exactly the wrong word) of the Nazis in operating the camps was that they were able to pick out people who were more vulnerable to propaganda (i.e. the Jews are going to destroy our society and they hate us all sort of stuff that they were spreading back then) and also less affected by doing terrible things to other human beings.
Kathy with a K said…
Yes, I'm thinking it's a group think. Incorporating ideas from trusted authorities. I think "trusted" might be the operative word there.
estee said…
If someone can convince people that one particular group (the Jews, the Tutsi, the Bosnians) is the source of their suffering, then you have the makings of genocide. The story goes that if you get rid of the [fill in the blank] than your problems will be solved. Those who don't join in will themselves become victims. So the message is clear, save yourself (and your family) or risk becoming a victim yourself.

It seems to me (I'm not a mental health professional, so I defer to you on this) that it stems from the absence of empathy -- which is rooted in a sense of someone being *different*, not like me/us. Some element of this is part of everyday life: blue states and red states; Cubs and Sox; homo- and hetero-sexual; cat lovers and dog lovers (and fish lovers). So when does it become "pathological"? When a futball/soccer match turns into a riot? When people pay 10% more to live in a "better neighborhood", on the other side of the street?

It's like any other "dysfuntion" -- it's functional until it's not. Bringing people to justice after the fact seems a bit like closing the barn door...
I've often wondered about this question. But I see clues in my own behavior--I still eat meat, and try sometimes but don't always manage to buy the humanely raised stuff.

Not on the same scale as the holocaust, obviously, but it's a similar willful obliviousness that allows horrible things to go on. Especially when "everyone" buys packages of meat at the grocery store.

The people who stand up and fight, especially at the possible cost of their own lives, are rare.
Stacie said…
I read your post and watched the youtube excerpt and I can't look at them as human. Even as these men play with their children and hug their wives...they WERE monsters. I want to watch the documentaries your mentioned...I think what scares us the most is that there is the potential in every human to be like these men. For them, be it power, or fear, they chose to be monsters. We cannot make ourselves feel better by attributing their deeds to mental illness (we're not crazy so we're not like them...ergo we feel better) so they make us extremely uncomfortable...the line is blurred and we wonder...would we do the same under the same circumstances?
Just Me said…
I had a patient a while back who had been sent into one of the camps as a spy prior to liberation. He told me this a number of times. Each time I would ask some minor question, and each time you could see him physically pull away from the topic. 60 years later and he so badly wanted to talk about it, and he couldn't. It was strange. He did tell me he had taken his children to all the places he had been in the war, including the camp. He said that they were told this was their one and only chance to ask questions. He'd also written a book which is in some museum somewhere but not available to the masses.

It was one of the harder situations I've had, because he would try to talk about it nearly every day and never could, and I didn't feel there was much I could say to help.
There was a fascinating New Yorker article describing the only known photo album to come out of Auschwitz, depicting some of the most famous Nazi figures at work, and at rest, at a vacation site located in Auschwitz itself.

The author, Alec Wilkinson, discusses the discrepancy between these people's brutality, and their ability to relax and vacation, like anyone else.

Thanks for the post.

aoc gold said…
At The Seaside


When I was down beside the sea

A wooden spade they gave to me

To dig the sandy shore.


The holes were empty like a cup

In every hole the sea camp up,

Till it could come no more.

-----by age of conan