Israeli youth in Auschwitz
Photo: Yehonatan Tzur
I will never understand
To this day, Noah Klieger still fails to understand how Germans were able do what they did

For many years now, every time I arrive at Auschwitz, I get the same feeling. It appears to me that it wasn’t me who was here during this incredibly dark period, but rather, someone else whose story I heard at some point in life.


Even when I write a personal story from my past I have a feeling that I’m not talking about myself. However, this sense dissipates shortly thereafter, and again I remember well that it is indeed I who was here. I was the one who went through all the horrors. I was the one who survived against all odds – and certainly in contradiction to the Germans’ plans.


For many years now I’ve been asking myself the same question. How could apparent human beings, who managed a completely normal private life, carry out the horrors that could not be described in words? How could they be so cruel?


For many years now I’ve been thinking about those Germans who worked at Auschwitz and at other extermination camps. How could it be that every evening the officers returned to their villas outside the camp, kissed their wife and kids, and sat down for dinner with their family? How did they stroke their cat and play with their dog – as I saw with my own eyes many times when I passed by them on my way to doing more hard labor.


In the morning, these officers went back to their job: The extermination of thousands of Jews.


For many years now I also recall the subordinates of these officers, SS men who in the evenings would tell each other, while laughing wildly, how they “took care” of yet another “stinking Jew.” For example, how they rolled him down to his death with rocks, or how they beat him up until he died.


For many years now I’ve been asking myself how it could be that almost an entire people, a civilized people, a “people of poets and philosophers,” could have done what it did.


For many years now I repeatedly think about what the Jews who lived in Germany felt. We, the Jews who did not live there, could not understand the motives for that German “murderous enthusiasm.” But what about those who lived in Germany for generations, who were more German than Jewish, and who contributed to the culture, arts, industry, and trade – who viewed Germany as their homeland?


How did they explain to themselves the violent madness of their countrymen, those who went to school and university with them, who went out with them, who went traveling with them, and who also joined the army with them? What did Ernest think, a Jew from Berlin who I knew at the camp for a short while (he didn’t survive long) of what his “comrades” did to him?


Ernest, who was wounded in Word War I, proudly bore a citation he received for the valor he displayed on the battlefield. What did Ernest do to his “comrades” that made them send him to his death in Auschwitz?


I’ve been asking myself these questions for many years now. For many years now, I’ve failed to understand. In fact, as the years go by, I understand less and less. I reached the conclusion that I will never be able to understand. In any case, nobody will be able to understand how it happened. Not the sociologists, not the psychologists, and not the historians.


Yet one cannot argue with facts and there is no possibility of refuting them either. Six million Jews are the proof.


First published: 05.01.08, 10:36
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