Some of my personal interests are crime, psychology and history. These areas of study often intersect as humans tend to kill one another, often times over differences they can’t or won’t remedy. The Holocaust is a prime example of this trifecta intersection. From 1933-1945 roughly, the Holocaust was carried out by Adolf Hitler and his Nazis with great detail and intentionality. The Germans were very well organized and kept paperwork and records on everything they did, including in each death camp.
I started learning about the Holocaust around 8th grade, or around 13 years of age. Even now, when I see pictures and footage of Auschwitz, I feel confused. Surely, this wide brick gateway with the glass lookout tower wasn’t so bad, was it? It looks like an airport tower, or even an entrance to a theme park. Everything appears so orderly and ordinary, if a little old and European looking. I expect Hell on earth–flames shooting out of the gate, the Devil walking around on the railroad tracks, bloodstains on the fences, anything really.
How could evil look like so ordinary, so efficient? Where were the flashing lights, the warning signals or other clues? No. There was just brick, mortar, glass and railroad ties at the entrance. And something else I learned recently—Auschwitz is massive. The immensity of the death camp be seen in the BBC drone footage here.
The evil was in the ordinary.
To this day, I still struggle with the visual appearance of evil. I’m not sure what I expect, but I don’t expect evil to look so normal. In my novel, M.B. (currently with my editor), how evil looks is a theme. How evil hides behind normal, even charming, appearances is also a theme. Evil gains a lot of power by hiding in sheep’s clothing, doesn’t it?
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s apparent what happens to Dr. Jekyll when he drinks his potion to transform into Mr. Hyde. The process of “becoming” evil is clearly delineated:
“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness…I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”
Mr. Hyde’s appearance also readily gives away his evil nature:
“I have observed that when I wore the semblance of Edward Hyde, none could come near to me at first without a visible misgiving of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”
As I’ve learned more about the Holocaust as an adult, I still struggle with understanding the war and the concentration camps. I’m not sure it can be understood and I have a hard time accepting that.
Writing horror is one way to navigate through such human struggles. But it becomes a different story when fiction isn’t the genre.
Quick note: For sake of clarity, I have indeed seen historical footage and photos of the prisoners, including prisoners throwing bodies into pits, Jews and the other groups exiting the cattle cars and being sorted, the piles of spectacles, human hair, shoes and more.
The point of this blog entry is looking at Auschwitz (and evil) today–removed from what actually happened. It’s deceiving and difficult to make sense of the information when we’re 70 years removed from WWII and the Holocaust. When met with the artifacts and evidence we have left, especially at first glance, it’s hard to fathom what actually went on. But it did occur and we must preserve it to educate future generations. Evil can be in the ordinary, even if we don’t expect it to be. This is, I think, my point.
Music: Theme of Schindler’s List, John Williams (NL Orchestra)