The Pulchritudinous Executioner
By Cassandra Milani
Mansfield, MA


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 opponents.

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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