Tag Archives: Holocaust

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” –Douglas Preston, The Monster of Florence 

Hello friend,

For a guy who thinks of himself as a bearer of all things GOOD in this world–Love, Peace, Kindness, Compassion, and Inclusion–I am regularly shocked and disturbed by my deep fascination with our history of absolute awfulness toward one another.

Truly, I cannot quite understand how the study of large-scale human evils captivates me, but it does. As a lifelong film buff, one genre that has consistently drawn me in is War movies. Watching them—some of my favorites are The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List, Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Hawk Down–I am usually sick to my stomach from start to finish, aching from the anguish felt by all of the families who lost their loved ones in the fighting, aching for the wasted potential of these beautiful lives, and aching from the ignorance, greed, and senselessness that led to it all.

I have almost no tolerance for either violence or senselessness in my life, and it seems like war is both of those things in their purest forms. It is the absolute antithesis of me. And yet, there I sit, glued to the screen when one of these films is on, unable to deny the entrance of this purified evil into my heart and mind. I allow it in. I must. That is how it feels, anyway.

I have never been one to turn away from reality intentionally. I may have been in unconscious denial a time or two, but I want to know the Truth of the Life around me. That includes the Darkness that runs counter to the Light I try to shine. Though I look for the good in the world everyday and in the people I meet, I am aware of the bad. Because of my curious nature, I feel compelled to dig deeply into each as it comes.

So it is that, when I watched Platoon when I was about 13, I was absolutely mesmerized by the very awfulness of humans. We were worse than I had ever imagined! We were inhumane. I had to understand this somehow.

I watched more movies, of course, but the thing that held my focus far better was the Holocaust. I was aware that there had been many, many attempts at genocide over the course of history, but there was something about the Nazis and the Holocaust that overwhelmed me and drew me in simultaneously. Maybe it was the sheer numbers—six million people murdered. Maybe it was the machine-like, efficient nature of it. Maybe it was America’s complicated involvement in it, first in looking the other way and later in helping to ending it. Maybe all of those things, but definitely because everything about it—the systematic and unfounded demonization of a people of a people that became “subhuman”, the absolute unfairness of their treatment even before their removal from their homes, the silence of the “good people” near and far, the horrors of their treatment in concentration camps, and of course, the gas chambers themselves—reflected this mesmerizing inhumanity that I have never been fully able to wrap my mind around.

I can’t stop learning about it, because I have a compulsive need to understand things. Because I still can’t quite comprehend how we could have done this, I keep trying to see it from a new angle, something that will deliver me from this agonizing bewilderment.

I have read many books on the topic. I have written reports on the sociological factors that were at play in the rise of Nazism and the subsequent persecution of the Jewish people across Europe. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC a few different times, choosing to carry that awful heaviness around with me all day instead of visiting dinosaur bones, art galleries, or monuments. I have been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and tried to put myself in her shoes. All of that was painful but definitely helped me to understand.

But by far the single most impactful experience of my obsession with inhumanity—and truly one of the very few most memorable and painful days of my life—was the day I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp in Poland where 1,500,000 people were murdered. That is 1.5 MILLION! The sheer volume is hard to fathom, I know, but it is essential to grasping the depths to which human depravity can sink.

I had planned for that day for some time and tried to steel myself for what I was to witness. As was the case for everything in this strange fascination of mine, my mind was divided between eagerness to learn about it up close and repulsion by the very thought of standing in the heart of darkness, literally following in the footsteps of humanity at its absolute worst. As it turned out, nothing could prepare me for the experience.

After a full day of touring the camp alone, I made it to the train station and melted into the cold metal bench outside. As I waited for the train to come to take me back to Krakow, I opened up my journal and let it all drain out of me. Here is what I wrote:

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

I don’t know how to begin. Truly I do not. As I stepped onto the grounds of the place, I felt something. It was small, but it was there, deep within my core. It surely began there, but there it did not end. What it was that I speak of, that thing that began there, was a cancer. And with each photograph and each display and each fact on each wall in each building, that cancer spread. I could feel so distinctly each new cell it overran. There is that place in the chest and gut that hurts so much and feels so hollow when someone loses the one he loves. That space can only be the soul. It was in that space, definitely, that the cancer began. I knew that place. At first it felt as though a surgeon with a dull, jagged scalpel was cutting it out of me slowly until he had every last bit. But then I realized that it was not being excised from my innards. Rather, there was no surgeon but instead the horrible, painful cancer. God, did it hurt! Like I was being slowly shredded from the inside out. When I knew it had every last cell in my soul, it passed slowly through the rest of me. With each new image in my face, a new cell it engulfed. It was the agony of a slow death. There were just so many images, so many visions of horror. It would not ease up on me. And there was nothing I could do to save myself. I was on the train. It flowed into my lungs and made breathing a constant struggle. I often had to stop to force out a breath and suck another one into my constricted chest. The python had me wrapped up. I was dying. It seeped into my stomach and intestines, cramping me and doubling me over with nausea. My hips and shoulders were next. They tightened and fought for every move. I was being decimated by this awful virus. I was feeling so helpless. It overtook my neck. Movement was painful and breathing nearly impossible. Still the images continued to flash. Images like the room about 100 feet long by twenty feet deep full of hair that piled over my head, hair from exterminated millions of human beings, cut to make cloth for the living. And images like the young girl’s three identification photos taken on entering the camp. Her hair was awfully shaven and she was desperately fighting to hold back the tears and be strong. Images of the standing cells no larger than my shower at home that were enclosed in brick darkness and made to hold four suffering men at a time, standing the night through after twelve hours of labor and no food or water. It was images like these that kept the cancer spreading. It went into my thighs and upper arms. I couldn’t move them much anymore, but the cancer seemed to force me along as it overran me. It took over the rights to my extremities near the end. I could just sense that I held a bit of my mind for myself yet. But it was still creeping. When I wandered through the old barracks, dreaming in the endless stacks of wooden bunks three high and uneven, I could see the emaciated, sick, and filthy men, women, and children wallowing there in the cold at night, climbing over one another and onto the muddy floors to shit or piss, if they had the strength to. I could feel them being tortured, beaten, and brutalized. And I could sense their knowing that their sickly vessels would be undressing to be gassed and burnt any day. That this was the end of some awful, awful sickness. Soon would come Deliverance. But still they were there. Still sick and hungry. Still scared. Still horrified. I could see all of this. And when I walked through that sick, sick gate at the end of the railroad track where the vast unchosen majority went immediately and all went eventually—down the stairs into the undressing room and into the showers of Zyclon-B and to the crematorium—when I walked through that gate, the cancer took all of me. I was a puddle of horrified cancer. I looked into that murky pool of water where the ashes were dumped. It was thick and ugly and mushy and awful. I thought, this is what I have become today. This is what this whole experiment, this unspeakable atrocity, amounts to. It is a murky puddle of ashes. A pool of death. Every one of us is there in that ugly mess, all of us wet and sick and dead. All of us ashes. And this is Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

It is hard to read that even now, 19 years later. The images still haunt me. The thought of all of those unique, special individuals—1,500,000 of them in that one place and 4,500,000 more in other camps like it—dying because someone chose them to be demonized and so few of the “good people”–including their neighbors and including people in America–stood up to the injustice of it. It still has the power to make my stomach turn.

I have made the effort to understand the darkness in each of us and the greater Darkness that we have all contributed to in events like the Holocaust or human slavery. I know the Psychology and the Sociology, even the Philosophy. But sometimes, like on that grey Autumn day in Poland 19 years ago, all of the knowledge in the world cannot shelter my heart and soul from being torn to shreds by the utter depravity of which we humans have proven ourselves capable of time and again.

I suppose we need the reminder though, at least occasionally. Because when I hear the rhetoric of certain politicians who seek to demonize certain groups based on religion or skin color, and when I watch their supporters march down the streets with flags and torches and swastikas, when I see these things and hear people trying to ignore them or normalize them, I feel like I owe it to those six million Jewish people who died in the concentration camps to remember how it all started and how the silence and denial of the “good people” allowed it to continue.

If I am to face up to the Truth of the Life around me in its entirety—not just the good stuff—I also need to draw the necessary parallels to our past and do my best to see that we do not go so deep into the Darkness together again. That is the best way I know to see to it that those six million did not die in vain. I will face the Darkness for them.

How about you? How deeply are you willing to explore the very worst aspects of our inhumanity in order to understand us more completely? Open up your journal and consider what you allow into your consciousness. Do you let yourself be open to the heartless and vile ways that groups of humans often treat each other? When you look at things like slavery, genocide, and war, what do you think their pervasiveness across history says about humans in general? Are we as evolved as a species as we like to believe we are? How much different are we than the other beasts? Are humans more special than other species? If you like to think of us as highly evolved and advanced, how do you explain the baseness and depravity that seem so common across cultures and time? Do you allow the things like genocide, human trafficking, and war to get under your skin and really pain you? Is there a big enough majority of good in the world to overshadow all of the bad that we do and keep you somewhat in denial of it? Are we better individually or collectively? Does humankind’s propensity for evil fascinate you like it does me? What massive failings of humankind do you take the time to truly study? Wars? Slavery? The Holocaust? Apartheid? Genocide? Environmental abuses? Racial injustice? Sexism? Abuses of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples? Does your greater understanding of an issue make you more or less upset about it? Which topic are you most likely to take a deep dive into next? Even understanding all of the horrific ways in which we have treated one another, do you still have hope for the future of humans? What is the worst thing we have done? How do you explain that to yourself? Leave me a reply and let me know: What have our moral failures taught you? 

Rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s be real and grow together!

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!