Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Historical Perspective

The news, including Al Jazeera and BBC, from NPR to Fox, has focused on Connecticut, just as a short while earlier it focused on Sandy. I lost contact with a dear friend for three weeks as she lived through the evacuation of her lower Manhattan building for the second time in two years. It seems blow follows blow, but from a historians perspective there is something askew. So, I cite the historical analysis below to place these events in perspective. I'm not at all clear on what the relevance is. You are invited to decide that for yourself.

The testimony of S. Szmaglewska, a Polish guard at Auschwitz, about the summer of 1944 taken from the Nuremburg trial record and cited from IRVING GREENBERG, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in AUSCHWITZ: BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA? Reflections on the Holocaust edited by Eva Fleischner (New York; KTAV 1977). The analysis is also Greenberg’s, not mine.

WITNESS:... women carrying children were [always] sent with them to the crematorium. [Children were of no labor value so they were killed. The mothers were sent along, too, because separation might lead to panic, hysteria-which might slow up the destruction process, and this could not be afforded. It was simpler to condemn the mothers too and keep things quiet and smooth.] The children were then torn from their parents outside the crematorium and sent to the gas chambers separately. [At that point, crowding more people into the gas chambers became the most urgent consideration. Separating meant that more children could be packed in separately, or they could he thrown in over the heads of adults once the chamber was packed.] When the extermination of the Jews in the gas chambers was at its height, orders were issued that children were to be thrown straight into the crematorium furnaces, or into a pit near the crematorium, without being gassed first.

SMIRNOV (Russian prosecutor): How am I to understand this? Did they throw them into the fire alive, or did they kill them first.

WITNESS: They threw them in alive. Their screams could be heard at the camp. It is difficult to say how many children were destroyed in this way.

SMIRNOV: Why did they do this?

WITNESS: It's very difficult to say. We don't know whether they wanted to economize on gas, or if it was because there was not enough room in the gas chambers.

A word must be said on the decision to economize on gas. By the summer of 1944, the collapse of the Eastern front meant that the destruction of European Jewry might not be completed before the advancing Allied armies arrived. So Hungarian Jewry was killed at maximum speed - at the rate of up to ten thousand people a day. Priority was given to transports of death over trains with reinforcements and munitions needed for the Wehrmacht. There was no time for selections of the healthy, of young Jews for labor, or even for registering the number of victims. Entire trainloads were marched straight to the gas chambers.

The gas used-Zyklon B, causes death by internal asphyxiation, with damage to the centers of respiration; accompanied by feelings of fear, dizziness, and vomiting. In the chamber, when released, "the gas climbs gradually to the ceiling, forcing the victims to claw and trample upon one another in their struggle to reach upward. Those on the top are the last to succumb.... The corpses are piled one on top of another in an enormous heap.... at the bottom of the pile are babies and children, women and old people.... "

The sheer volume of gas used in the summer of 1944 depleted the gas supply. In addition, the Nazis deemed the costs excessive. Therefore, in that summer, the dosage of gas was halved from twelve boxes to six per gassing. When the concentration of the gas is quite high, death occurs quickly. The decision to cut the dosage in half was to more than double the agony.

How much did it cost to kill a person? The Nazi killing machine was orderly and kept records. The gas was produced by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Schadlingsbekampfung m.b.H. (German Vermin-Combating Corporation, called DEGESCH for short). It was a highly profitable business, which paid dividends of 100 percent to 200 percent per year (100 percent in 1940 and 1941; 200 percent in 1942, 1943) to I. G. Farben, one of the three corporations which owned it.5 The bills for Zyklon B came to 195 kilograms for 97.5 marks = 5 marks per kilogram. Approximately 5.5 kilograms were used on every chamberload, about fifteen hundred people. This means 27.5 marks per fifteen hundred people. With the mark equal to 25 cents, this yields $6.75 per fifteen hundred people, or forty-five hundreths of a cent per person. In the summer of 1944, a Jewish child's life was not worth the two-fifths of a cent it would have cost to put it to death rather than burn it alive.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Top of the Mountain

It is not death I fear, I welcome it. At times like these one can understand that it is not death that is to be feared but what one will live to see. Our civilization has become intolerable and the dreadful stories come one upon the other, each more gruesome than the one before. And Morgan Freeman pleads like a man pissing into the wind, for the media to please stop making heroes out of these insane people. He reminds us that there are more among us and they all love to watch television and see their heroes names and pictures immortalized on Fox News. Can anyone, he asks, name a single victim from the Columbine high school massacre-suicide? It’s the names of the heroes we remember, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. The nameless millions perished nameless and forgotten. But Freeman’s sensible call will never be heeded. Three year olds will be brought to witness for us the deaths around them. I for one, do not need such pictures in my head and I just don’t want to know. And when Caryn confronts me, because she cannot process this without talking, I get angry because I don’t want to know. Ladies and Gentlemen and children of all ages, we don’t want to know. That is all right, Apophis is coming and she will make all things right.

In the gas chambers at Auschwitz, where fifteen hundred people could be gassed in a single large room, when the gas had killed everyone and they opened the doors to clear out the bodies, the men of the Zondercommand found the bodies piled in a pyramid. The first to die were on the bottom and as people began to climb one upon the other for a last gasp of breath, the last person at the top, being the last breath of that community of fifteen hundred Jews. Would I wish to be that last person taking that last breath? I think I would prefer to be lying already dead at the bottom of the heap of what was once humanity. It is so very painful to watch.

It’s at times like these, I like to remind people that there is at least some relief to be found in smoking Camels and drinking Jack Daniels. From time to time there is a need to drown our sorrows because from time to time the sorrows around us become unbearable and “keep your chin up” just doesn’t work. God never spares the “infants and sucklings” in his wrath. That phrase is used repeatedly in the Torah. When God gets angry he does not spare the infant and suckling or the aged and infirm. When God gets angry there is death without and terror within. And, as Bob Dylan sings so hauntingly in his new song, Tempest - “there is no understanding of the judgements of the Lord.” I will erase them, God says, in the Song of Moses, but for the arrogance of the enemy who will claim their hand was higher than mine! And the enemy came again and again the infants and sucklings and elderly and infirm all were put to death... and finally it ended and there was no more Israel and there was no one left to gloat, just the last person on the top of the heap of what once was. And there will be none to remember. “Ashbitah mayenosh zichram,” God proclaims, “I will erase all memory of their existence.”

Fortunately for me, my guardian Angel is the Angel of Death and she protects me from illusions and I look forward to her cold embrace, for that is one promise, I know will be kept, this is an Angel, I can believe in. It is one of the few scraps of my ancient theology that remains unshaken. I know that I will vanish forever forgotten, not a trace of a memory will remain, all my sins washed forever away in oblivion. For the rest of you, I recommend Jack, Camels and an extra Nexium. On the positive side, the balmy December days continue, soon Spring will return. Remember that once upon a time there were seasons... and the mighty Cedars of Lebanon touched the heavens. Oh, to see those great forests of Cedar where today is only blood and sand. There is no comprehension of the judgements of the Lord even if you don’t believe anything. Go and explain how it happens, why it happens. Give me science and psychology, or give me a stiff glass of Glenlivet and some smoke.

It’s closing time, ladies and gentlemen, drink up, this is our last round. It’s one for the Devil and it’s one for Christ. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. There... I said it. I really don’t mind wishing you and me and us, a Merry Christmas. I wouldn’t mind having a Merry Christmas just once! So, let those of us who can still manage a hug, to embrace each other. Find a shoulder and have a sigh, share a tear and drink to life. It’s a new Sunday and there are precious few shopping days left. Enjoy them and don’t worry about your credit... it is good with us. We are just sorry for the inconvenience and we appreciate your patience. Keep your courage up, there must be a cliche that is appropriate for a Hallmark card. Something with Santa and children all in red.

I apologize to those I have not yet insulted. I wish I could be a nice person, but it just isn’t in me. In place of love all I have is some good advice: see your doctor, get a prescription and kill the pain. Who knows maybe it will be better tomorrow. From my mother I learned never to serve food in the container and if you can’t say something nice say something nasty. From my father I learned that we live in hope and die in fear. They were too fucked up to really know how to love their children so they battered them instead. It looked like love to me and I longed for it. It is all ok now. I learned a secret meditation technique that allows me to leave my pain on the bathroom floor as I dry off from my morning shower. It has to do with getting the water off and putting oil on dry skin. Then you sit and stare into the vacuum or her eyes.