By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
As Faulkner would have it, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The injury remains, even if vengefulness subsides. Time heals the broken limbs but only love, enduring justice, truth and acknowledgement pours a kind balsam over the soul.
There are practical limits to the law, to punishment and to restorative justice.
There are things a man could do to bring himself back to the side of righteousness – even those of us who do not believe in ethereal goodness must trust in humankind’s ability for redemption not before a god, unless that god is us. That doesn’t mean you escape justice by acknowledging your mistakes. We think, even firmly believe that – except for the barbarity of the death penalty and the inhumane, just or not, caging of those who are too far beyond what we deem redeemable or capable of rehabilitation – the central function of our prisons is to bring people back…better. Then, there is no escaping the notion that if someone managed to do so without being in a prison, we need to accept it. Unless we are just saying: “Oh, but he escaped punishment.”
Oskar Gröning, the central case of The New Yorker’s article “The Last Trial,” presents just such a puzzle. He worked at Auschwitz, he knew what was done, he – and we are, of course, taking his word for it, but apparently the only incriminating evidence so far is his own word – never so much as slapped anyone. He was also an adult and convinced that it was fine to exterminate the Jewish people because they were the enemy. He was bothered by the “excesses,” that is, by the disorderly killings:
“And amongst this rubbish were people who were ill, who were unable to walk.” A child lay on the ramp. A guard pulled the child by the legs, and “when it screamed, like a sick chicken, they bashed it against the side of a truck, so it would shut up.” Gröning complained to his supervisor. If Jews needed to be eliminated, “then at least it should be done within a certain framework.” The officer assured him that such “excesses” were the “exception.” At one point, Gröning requested a transfer. His request was denied.
When the war was over, he returned to normal life. Then, one day, he decided to confront Holocaust deniers. Nothing in the article says he had realized what he did was wrong. But, one concludes that, in light of history, he probably came to terms with the wrongness of it. One has to assume that because, why would he decide to incriminate himself by acknowledging his role and what he witnessed? He is not feeble-minded not to realize he was opening himself to scrutiny. He also must know that, while many of the victims and their heirs have come to hate the system without hating every single one of its supporters, many have not. I guess it is hard not to understand that.
If he is to be prosecuted, Gröning posits an important question: “then where would you stop? Wouldn’t you also have to charge the engineer who drove the trains to Auschwitz? And the men who ran the signal boxes?”
The question is a burning one. Where do we stop indeed? We see in the papers the news of those hateful gangs who abhor what they call the “German guilt.” They are using it for their own despicable purposes.
I have been guilty of that in a sense. Not with Germans, but using the situation of Germany as a comparison when referring, for instance, to my own Cuban compatriots who cowardly inform on one another to protect the meager gains they have. We have seen that a million times over history. We know we’ll see it a million times more.
That’s why truth and reconciliation commissions exist. Because we know we are humans and cowards and miserable and we will take advantage of a situation to take over the neighbor’s bakery. We also would hide the neighbor’s kids under our cellar at the risk of our own lives.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, himself a Holocaust survivor, said it best.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
He also said, one would assume with that unfair, undeserved guilt of the survivor, the best among us did not return” (from the concentration camps.)
I tend to be intolerant. I believe they all knew and took advantage. But the truth is much more complex. Yes, there were the worst among them: who knew and took advantage – sadly, we learn, some were Jewish too, because evil is a human trait and it is equitably distributed among the species. Then, there were the best among them: who knew and took unimaginable risks to do the right thing. Then, there were the rest. That silent majority that is always there and needs to live another day and would align itself with whomever will keep it alive. That majority is us. Heroes and villains are the extremes of the spectrum. That wide middle is us. We can go both ways. We can be educated in high minded principles and we can be whipped up to do the most untoward things.
Then, when the dust settles in history, we, as happens to many decent Germans now, are ashamed of ourselves for the barbarity. And then, again, our own humanity shows: some acknowledge the truth, and try to live decently to make up for it. Others find excuses for the past.
The barbarity of the Holocaust was some decades ago. Victims and perpetrators are dying. We need justice, for sure, but we also need truth, acknowledgment. Societies get sick when their leaders whip up the worst in human nature to their own advantage. We know that. We have seen it here in the United States with blacks, with Latinos, with Arabs, with Japanese.
We have, perhaps, reached the end of the rope in terms of trials for the Holocaust. Time has done that for us. Could we, perhaps, put some of the energy into truth and reconciliation with the future, so that we can prevent and stop the other Holocausts that now surround us?