Last week it was the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. There were a number of programmes I watched on the television. Terrible times. The survivors’ stories never cease to shock and appal. The ritual humiliation, removal of citizens’ rights, rampant propaganda, extreme nationalism gradually increased until no one could be in any doubt what the Nazi attitude to the Jews was.
The television programmes include scenes of concentration camps being liberated by British troops, the words of Richard Dimbleby reporting on what he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. Ordinary soldiers spoke of the shock and horror they felt. This is a story with which I am familiar: Allied troops as heroes, liberators, saviours. And indeed they were.
I have only recently become familiar with another story, thanks to a meticulously researched biography by Jack Fairweather, of a former Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki. He was a member of the Warsaw resistance. When his group learned of the existence of Auschwitz he volunteered to be captured so that he would be taken there so he could learn what was going on and organise a break out. He managed to smuggle a message out and was hopeful help would come. It did not. He persevered, continuing to document and pass on details of the barbarities he witnessed: the creation of the first gas chamber, the creation of a new camp called Birkenau. His comrades in the the resistance passed the information to the Polish government in exile who shared it with the allies, begging them to act. They did not.
Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill believed the genocide of Jews merited a direct response, and one British diplomat even said the Poles wee “being very irritating over this”.
Perhaps it is because we find it hard to believe stories of acts of such evil if we do not see them for ourselves that we can shut our ears and minds to them. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing he writes “He said the wicked know that if the evil they do is of sufficient horror men will not speak of it. That men have only stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.”
But small evils gathered together become large ones. As John Dryden wrote of ill habits, they “gather by unseen degrees, as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas” until something on the scale of the Holocaust happens. Continue reading