Kay Bonner was one of the
first women to land on Normandy following D-Day. As a member of the
Special Services, she witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald
concentration camp in Germany.
“I remember thinking, ‘No one will believe this, I must take pictures.’
But my hands, my whole body, were shaking so, that I jammed the shutter
and dropped the camera.”(Lewin 207)
The first corpse was a shock. Skin clung to every rib, every naked limb.
There were holes between the parted lips where teeth had fallen out, and
the eyes were empty sockets, blind on a face of charred porcelain. But
as the camera panned out over the mass grave, there were suddenly
thousands of these nameless bodies, thousands of limp legs draped over
each other and arms tangled together in a terrible fate. With the first
sight of these twisted piles, the shock of one skeleton faded into the
unfathomable horror of mass genocide.
The American soldiers had read about Nazi camps, but nothing had
prepared them for this scene. Death had permeated everything, filling
the air with the stench and suffering of countless prisoners dying
gradually through agonizing starvation. To capture the unbelievable, the
soldiers took pictures and videos, yet even then, the images were so
haunting that they were nearly beyond conception.
Sixty-three years has done nothing to erode the shock. Despite
everything that I had read about the Holocaust, everything that had been
exposed in the aftermath, I was no more prepared for these scenes than
the liberators who first entered the camps several decades ago. The
mounds and mounds of stacked bodies, flickering in black and white
footage on a classroom projector, stunned me to silence. As I tried to
imagine being on the other side of the television screen, I realized
that I had never truly known about the Holocaust.
“On the walls were great meat hooks where they hung prisoners
like chunks of beef until they died.
The prisoner who was pointing out these instruments of torture
told me that his wife and two sons had died on the hooks.” (207)
For a long time, I learned about the Holocaust without understanding,
because I learned by fact rather than experience. I knew that the
Holocaust had taken the lives of six million Jews, but what I knew did
not scratch the depth of reality. Those two words, “six million”, cannot
describe six million tragedies. They cannot convey the desperation of
the men who were reduced to chewing flesh from the carcasses of their
fellow prisoners nor the helplessness of the mothers who tried to
sacrifice their lives for those of their children. In the same way, the
words “German atrocities” do not sufficiently describe Auschwitz, in
which medical experiments were performed on children, leaving them as
vegetables (6). When the liberators entered the commander’s offices of
Buchenwald, they found it furnished with lamp shades stitched from the
tattooed skin of prisoners (207); what adjective can express this degree
of contempt for human life?
The Holocaust cannot be told without the stories of its witnesses. Their
individual accounts represent the edges of human pain and barbarity,
survival and death. More importantly, they are a lesson of what must
never become the future. For this reason, it is vital that remnants of
these memories can be passed onto a new generation to explain what was
inexplicable by statistics and sheer language.
“The next day we brought the townspeople out to Buchenwald,
and showed them through the camp.
‘You did this,’ we told them.
And the people answered, ‘No, not us, it was Hitler.’
‘You allowed it to happen,’ we said, ‘you are responsible.’
They said, ‘No, no. We didn’t even know the camp was here.’ (208)
Although the scale of the Holocaust may not have been known until after
the war, the presence of genocide was not a secret. The barbed wire
fences had not contained the smell of rotting bodies as it drifted over
the surrounding country. Throughout the war, the prisoners had been
forced to do labor in the nearby German towns, fixing roads and damaged
buildings. They were seen, clothed in their blue and white striped
uniforms and guarded by S.S., in broad daylight by German civilians
(12). The villagers who claimed to know nothing of the concentration
camps were the same ones who had thrown stones at the prisoners on these
occasions (208). How could they hide behind feigned ignorance?
It says something about the world that six million people were allowed
to die before the Holocaust was stopped. The blame lies not in the
Germans alone, nor any nationality. Rather, it shows a frightening
quality of all humans: how easy it is to lose morality. The Holocaust
was not just the product of one man; it was made possible by an entire
population that was so blinded by popular intolerance that they forgot
what it was to be human beings. Perhaps they weren’t Nazis, perhaps they
never directly contributed to the concentration camps, but the
bystanders of the Holocaust carry their own responsibility for their
Today, we find ourselves in their shoes, standing on the sidelines of
The memories are still fresh, the survivors’ voices still heard, the gas
ovens still standing, and still, people have not changed. Discrimination
on the basis of race, religion, and sex is still prevalent in many parts
of the world. In Darfur, an ongoing ethnic genocide has taken the lives
of up to 400,000 people as entire villages are being systematically
raped, murdered, and destroyed by government-backed forces (“Darfur
Update”). In China, the Communist government is continuing a nine-year
persecution of the meditation practice, Falun Gong, subjecting
practitioners to torture, “reeducation”, and forced labor for their
spiritual beliefs (Horvitz).
We know more about the genocides today than the world knew about the
Holocaust in 1943. With this knowledge comes the need to raise
awareness. In the past few years, the issue of Darfur has been brought
to the public attention, but there are many other similar cases that
remain largely unknown, though not for a lack of information. With every
carelessly tossed-aside article about foreign persecution, with every
person that strolls by a human rights protest without turning a glance,
the world is drifting towards the same apathy that paved the roads for
the Holocaust. Shrugging shoulders amidst the dismissals of, “It’s the
government’s problem,” are a clear indication that the prevailing
silence has yet to be broken.
Maybe the numbers have not hit six million, but the question already
stands—how long are we going to wait?
“Whenever I feel that one person cannot do much,
or that what I’m doing is not important or not having any effect,
I remember the Germans saying, ‘No, we are not responsible,’
and our answer, ‘Yes, you are. You allowed it to happen.’” (Lewin 208)
“Darfur Update – October 2007.” Save Darfur. 25 April, 2008. <http://www.savedarfur.org/newsroom/policypapers/september_briefing_paper_the_genocide_in_darfur/>
Horvitz, Leslie Alan, and Christopher Catherwood. "human rights
violations in China." Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide. New York:
Facts On File, Inc., 2001. Modern World History Online. Facts On File,
ItemID=WE53&iPin=EWCG089&SingleRecord=True (accessed April 27, 2008).
Lewin, Rhoda G., ed. Witnesses to the Holocaust. New York: Twayne