Otto Karas-Kaufman painted
as if his life depended on it. He had been deported from Theresienstadt,
a ghetto where many artists resided, to Auschwitz in 1944 and found
himself painting the beautiful spring foliage around the camp in his
View in Springtime. He had passed through the arches of Theresienstadt
marked with the infamous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”—Work Brings
Freedom—only to again pass under the same deceptive slogan at Auschwitz.
He would perish there that same year.
Jacques Gotko and Karl Schleswig painted, respectively, the picturesque
scenery surrounding the Compiegne and St. Cyprien camps. Just beyond the
thin, fragile wire that enveloped the camp lay freedom, unattainable,
goading them. The striking mountain ranges and boundless blue skies that
lay just outside of their camps mocked them incessantly. Treblinka’s
fences were similarly camouflaged with the inviting and appealing
greenery of nature. The platform where prisoners were received
masqueraded as a fully functioning railroad station, complete with a
cashier, first-aid center, and even a clock that an SS guard would
hand-set—as it had stopped working—to fool both the arrivals and
passersby. At Theresienstadt, before the Red Cross arrived to inspect
the ghetto, the SS set up temporary cafés, renovated barracks, painted
buildings, and planted gardens to beautify the ghetto. To make the camp
appear less crowded and more comfortable, they deported thousands of
people to Auschwitz and other death camps. The paradox was striking:
artists created, musicians played beautiful music in an orchestra, and
actors performed and entertained, all while thousands of Jews were dying
and starving there. The Red Cross approved Theresienstadt, along with
many concentration camps. This deception further encouraged
organizations like the YMCA, the ORT, and, ironically, the JDC to send
art supplies to any camp that wished to receive them in order to
continue what Hitler deemed a “noble mission”.
So thus was the prisoners’ misery veiled. It was easier for people to
fall prey to the Nazis’ deceptions than to accept the cruel and
inexplicable reality that was the Jewish ghettos and the concentration
camps, that was Auschwitz and the five other death camps shrouded around
Europe. It was not masked by only the Nazis who built and ran them,
however. The witnesses, the ones who were not persecuted and imprisoned
by the Nazis, voluntarily allowed the Nazis’ crimes to occur. They chose
to accept them passively. The daily, inescapable stench of 15,000
burning and rotting bodies penetrated the countryside surrounding
Treblinka for miles. They held their breath. They deafened themselves to
the cries of children being burned alive at Auschwitz. They chose to
ignore the swiftly dwindling number of Jews, Gypsies, and other groups
across Europe. The beautified Nazi propaganda was easier to grasp than
the unprecedented, inhumane alternative that was the truth. The Red
Cross’ conclusion was easier for the YMCA to accept than the sorrow
actually depicted in the art they were supplying.
Little more than six decades later, the same situation is arising again
in Darfur. The world’s reaction to contemporary genocides has remained
the same as those who passively accepted the Holocaust. People choose to
overlook the bitter, melancholy news because there are more palatable
alternatives available: news regarding celebrities, television, and
sports. The media often marginalizes the current tragedies in Darfur, or
completely ignores them. But this only breeds apathy. Our materialistic
society has molded us into being apathetic creatures who do not care to
penetrate the sugar-coating of parochial, material news and learn about
something more distasteful but much more urgent. Despite the advent of
globalization, many would rather spend hours online or texting their
friends on their cell-phones than becoming actively aware of what is
happening in the world around them. We have become isolated and relaxed
in the new world of modern technology. The need for verbal communication
and human interaction has nearly ceased to exist. Those whom President
Nixon once referred to as the “silent majority” have now become the
“silent entirety”. Whatever happened to the public protests against the
Vietnam War by the passionate youth of America? The world, in the
aftermath of the calamity in Vietnam, snubbed the incidents in Cambodia
as Pol Pot’s brutal regime tore through the country, killing anyone who
did not qualify as ethnically “Khmer”. The Cambodians’ blue scarves were
much like the yellow stars with which the Jews were labeled during the
Holocaust. We stood by while the conflict in Rwanda escalated and
resulted in several thousand Tutsis being massacred in just several
weeks. During the Third Balkan War, Croatians were forced into
concentration camps to be “ethnically cleansed” in Yugoslavia. Now, the
Janjaweed in Darfur are massacring their non-Arab, black Muslim
Humans are capable of greatness; we are capable of unsurpassed kindness,
nobility, and attention. Even Auschwitz’s notorious Dr. Koenig let a
smuggled boy named Zbyszek remain in the camp, clothed and fed, thus
enabling Zbyszek’s survival. In the same way, we are also capable of
disregarding this humanitarian path for the comfort of indifference. We
have witnessed the more than six million consequences of voluntary
ignorance, and yet have chosen to again traverse that road.
As the generation charged to inform, expose, and alert the world to its
injustices and atrocities, we must awake from our comfortable stupor.
With today’s technology, we are capable of spreading awareness about the
Holocaust’s enduring consequences and finally vanquishing genocide. We
must look beyond the pleasant, materialistic delusion we live in and
witness the suffering in other parts of the world. We must again look
into the eyes of the emaciated, sunken faces of the 3,000 brave souls
that “survived” Auschwitz, and remember not only the prisoners who were
reduced to mere numbers upon entering the camps, but also the anonymous
victims who never received numbers, and whose lives were allotted so
little value that their deaths were never recorded. Otto Karas-Kaufman
cannot be forgotten, nor can the hundreds of thousands that became
victims of the cold malice of the Einsatzgruppen solely because they had
the misfortune of being born Jewish. We must listen when a survivor
speaks, and learn from the experiences of those who were victimized by
the Nazis, unlike those who have chosen to ignore the Holocaust’s events
and legacy. Whether it be through a movie about the Holocaust, a book or
a painting by one of its prisoners or victims, or a museum or memorial,
it is essential that we rally as the worldwide youth and take heed. We
must endeavor to educate not only ourselves about the Holocaust, but
others as well. We must unite ourselves globally to combat genocide;
this is the only way we can truly honor those who died during the
Holocaust, as well as prevent further genocides from occurring. For the
sake of all humanity, we must again protest, become politically and
publicly active, listen to the living, and continue to speak for the
dead. In a time when anyone can use technology to observe any place on
Earth, a thin, fragile wire should no longer be able to hide atrocities
from those who wish to see.
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