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The horrors of concentration camps

29 January 2015

10:38 AM

29 January 2015

10:38 AM

Seventy years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, Roman Kent, who was 12 when he was sent there, wept as he implored the world not to allow anything like that to happen again. ‘How can one erase the sight of human skeletons – just skin and bones, but still alive?’ he said. ‘How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh?’

Paul-Emile Seidman was working as a doctor in Bichat hospital in Paris when the survivors of the concentration camps began to arrive.

In a few days our beds were occupied by skeletons…They all seem to be of the same age, whether they are twenty or sixty. Their heads appear tiny—nothing but a fragile skull in which the eyes seem to occupy the whole face. There are bald spots on their heads; you take a strand of hair, you barely pull it, it remains between your fingers like the coat of an old diseased animal. Their complexions are sallow and the skin on their bodies is uniformly scaly, usually flabby and oedematous. They are covered with bug-bites and scratches; sometimes we find the traces of handcuffs and ropes, always the marks of blows. Their limbs, except for those suffering from oedema, are wasted—no fat and no muscles, only the bones covered by this dirty-coloured flesh whose articulations seem by contrast enormous. On the left forearm of both men and women one often finds tattooed in blue their prisoner’s identification numbers. These in general are those who passed through Auschwitz, by a mere chance escaping the gas chambers and crematoria.

From the psychological point of view, I have seen three types of patient. More often than not they are dull and sluggish, hardly speaking, and then only very softly. It is as if, after having been drowned and saved, they are in the process of regaining consciousness. They have lived so long with death and so close to it that they have passed into a kind of twilight state. Others, still too mentally bludgeoned, bury their faces in their pillows when you speak to them and sob without answering. And lastly there are a few who are voluble, excited by their recent liberation, breathlessly ridding themselves of their nightmares. Tales of blows, starvation, of dead comrades come pouring out in mad chaos. But there are few of these. What struck us all was the restraint of these patients. We expected to find them bitter and revengeful, exhibiting their moral and physical wounds; but instead we found them silent and withdrawn. Their faces light up with a timid smile if you show them a single sign of affection or shake them by the hand.

These shadows whom we are endeavouring to bring back to life represent the most extraordinary examples of human resistance… They are utterly unconscious of their greatness. Their tales evoke the hidden parachutists, the escaped prisoners, the underground posts for the passing-on of news, those who refused to work for the enemy, the makers of fake identification papers and the rescued Jewish children. I have the impression that here in my wards are the People themselves, who by instinct strove for Liberty, for everything which seemed to them just and right.

…How can I choose among all these stories? Why should I tell the story of the man with an eye stove in with a whip-lash any more than that of the little Bretonne with the head-wounds? “They hurried us across fields, woods and mountains to get away from the Americans,” she said; “two of the prisoners began to spit blood, and we stopped to do what we could for them, so they shot two Russian women who were with us and kicked me on the head.” Shall I recall the man with the ankle pierced by a red-hot iron more than the one who, showing me his toes, simply said: “They tore off my toe-nails,” or the one covered with dog-bites?

Why choose? This hospital where I work seems to me a synthesis of the tortured, jumbled and scattered masses of Europe. Those who have survived are terrified of death. It seems to them that so much suffering has given them the right to live. It would seem too unfair, too bitter, to disappear now. But this morning asked a boy who had returned from Buchenwald, “Well, how are we doing today?” and he answered in a low voice, “I am becoming a man, but in fact I know that this man is going to die.”

The Conservative MP Mavis Tate was another early witness to the horrors of the camps.

When I visited Buchenwald, I saw in the first hut I entered…human bodies which were reduced to mere skeletons covered with skin. They tried feebly to wave a hand, or perhaps smile (which they could not do because the skin of their faces was so tightly drawn back that a smile was no longer possible), and it was a terrible shock when some of the worst cases tried to tell us what nationality they were. One realised then that, though one had looked at them with pity and dismay; one was still failing to appreciate them as living humanity with feelings and reactions similar to one’s own. That was the most appalling and shocking thing.

The so-called children in the camp present a tremendous problem. They speak with utter calm of having seen their relations shot or removed to be put into a gas-chamber. They have many of them lived their most formative years knowing only cruelty, squalor and warm in its extreme forms, and they give the impression—and none can wonder at it—of callousness and of lack of interest in anything beyond personal preservation. Those who have survived are tough, and will be unlikely to prove a centre of stability or of kindliness wherever they settle. They should be under care and guidance of a high order for a time and not let loose lonely and stateless in a distraught Europe.


She was shaken by the demeanour of most of the Germans she met there.

Some German civilians from Weimar were visiting the camp when we were there, but one woman only did I see who appeared genuinely upset. When I said to her, “Well you have behaved in a wonderful way under Hitler, have you not?” she burst into tears and said, “I am ashamed of being a German.” The citizens of Weimar in the main looked anything but cowed. They have never been bombed— their land has been cultivated to the last inch with the help of slave labour, and they look well-fed, truculent and aggressive. I repeatedly said to my fellow delegates that I was deeply shocked by the faces of many of the German women in Weimar. They were cruel and hard beyond belief, and I had seen none like them anywhere—until I looked at the photographs of the women guards of Belsen camp.

An editorial in 1944 also tried to come to terms with the idea that so many people could have been in on it.

The foul and hideous picture is not done with when we have considered the sadists who planned and ordered this annihilation factory; there are also all the Germans—not a few of them—whose business it was to see the job through. One of them is reported to have said: “I was shocked at first, but I got used to it.” There we have the most disturbing factor in the problem of con- temporary Germany—that of perhaps millions of persons who have got “used to” the things that the Nazis have thrust into their minds. It may be the most formidable problem before Europe.

That mass ability to get used to things is a haunting problem, which the magazine wrote about again in April 1945.

Germans who have been interviewed have been at pains to protest that these outrages which were occurring in many parts of Germany were the work of S.S. men or Nazi gaolers, not of ordinary Germans, who, they maintain, are civilised people. Such excuses make the situation no less disturbing, since they reveal that ordinary Germans have shut their eyes to the realities, or apathetically acquiesced, and show no sense of their responsibility for crimes repeatedly committed by agents of a Government which they accepted. The Allies appear to be confronted with a nation the vast majority of whom are destitute of any public conscience whatever. That fact must govern the treatment of them.

Eight people were sentenced to death for their involvement at the first Belsen trial in 1945. It was, The Spectator argued, a good model for the next trial at Nuremberg.

There has been much criticism of the proceedings, chiefly directed to their length and the pains taken to ensure that justice shall be done and shall be seen to be done. Now the trial is over, such criticism seems very near to praise. The trial has served a valuable purpose in exposing in detail some of the horrible crimes which were common form in the Germany of the concentration camps and in ensuring that they met with the strictest justice. One of its most interesting features was that the accused, who were capable of such inhuman cruelty, presented no appearance of abnormality and regarded their crimes as honourable services to their fatherland…

One of the purposes the Nuremberg trial should serve is to present a complete and detailed picture of the vast conspiracy by which the Nazis sought to dominate the world, and the steps by which they tried to carry it out, involving among other things the deliberate murder of over 5,000,000 Jews. Fears have been expressed that the trial will result in making martyrs of the accused. If it is properly conducted, they will never figure again, either now or in the future, as anything but what they are ; that is, some of the most despicable, degenerate, and dangerous men who have ever played a part in history.


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