Alexander: “If there is a god, then he’s a shit, and I’d like to kick him in the butt.”
Aron: “Your theory is very interesting and appears to be justified.”
–Ingmar Bergman‘s Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Alfredo de Braganza: You have visited Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Mauthausen, Dachau, etc. I understand that Holocaust scholars draw a distinction between concentration camps (which real term was borrowed from the U.S. when they built those camps for the Native Americans and also from the British concentration camps of the Second Anglo-Boer War) and extermination camps (which were established by the Nazis for the industrial-scale mass slaughter). So, the term “concentration camp” is popularly read and used as an euphemism which can be replaced by other terms (more politically correct…) such as; internment camp, resettlement camp, detention facility, etc. But when you read “extermination camp” its a very well direct damned meaning, not a double twist word or an euphemism. At that time, the Nazis divided the camps in different types; POW camps,Transit/collection camps, Labor camps, etc. Although none of the categories was independent and many of them could be classified as a mixture and all camps had some of the elements of an extermination camp, however, it’s said that the systematic extermination of new-arrivals occurred in very specific camps and the other places scholars have been classified as “minor extermination camps”. I believe distinction should not be made upon the number of people killed. Maybe for the new generation just the concept “concentration camp” sounds “light”, something cool like watering plants, making alcoholic drinks from potatoes, and be dressed in “Gap” brand clothing style in The Great Escape movie with Steve McQueen; like no-killing happened inside beyond what it means “detention” or “concentration of people”… What is your opinion about it, and, do you think that in History subject books the term “extermination” has been “polished” or avoided?
Jesús Maguregui: Indeed, I think that things should be called by that name only: Extermination camps. As there is still a debate about the final number of victims of the Shoah (which will be impossible to clarify), there is still a debate about the nomenclature. Some experts have spoken about the terminology of the “Third Reich”, even published dictionaries, and the most interesting ones have made a classification of the Camps. A killed life is a life stolen to God. So serious is the crime of the one who shoots as the one who “orders” to 2,000 people to enter into a gas chamber. Killing is killing.
Yes. The word “extermination” has been tried to be deleted from the vocabulary of the Shoah. But in recent years, more transparency is present, and survivors can held their head high. Some of them have recently begun to leave testimony of their experience, having suffered the silence for more than 50 years…
Think about the trauma of the survivors. Put yourself on the skin of someone who has spent several years watching his normal life away, being cornered and rejected (from streets, friends, at work …), who is expelled from his home and resettled, with another 20 or 30 people, in a small apartment with no running water, no electricity or fuel. Suddenly, everyone must leave to an unknown location in inhumane conditions. There is only one thing in your head: that nothing happens to your parents, wife and children. Days without eating or drinking. Suddenly the doors open, your are completely exhausted. They cancel you as a person by bright lights, screaming and biting dogs. You are separated from your wife and your children. Undressed. They shave your head and you get ridiculous clothes full of lice. After 3 hours standing up at extreme temperatures you do not know anyone around you. You think that this can not be happening to you.
At the Radegast station (just outside the city of Lodz, Poland), you can visit (even get into one) a locomotive and two wagons, donated by the German state, which were used to transport Jews. It is really impressive getting into the wagon and imagine those scenes of great suffering.
It is important to say that there were many Jews who rebelled against the Nazis, and that many non-Jews supported them (risking their own lives). The most exciting episode certainly is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. To put my hand on the wall of the ghetto (just few meters only have survived) was a unique experience.
AB: According to historians the Nazis frequently used euphemistic language to disguise the true nature of their crimes, like for example they used the term “Final Solution” to refer to their plan to eradicate the entire Jewish population in Europe (the most deadly phase of the Holocaust). But, before the “Final Solution” was implementing in 1942, massacres of Jews already occurred (The first Nazi concentration camps were hastily erected in Germany in 1933). My question is: Do you personally think the Holocaust was gradually improvised, or was it the execution of a plan laid in advance?
JM: In my library I have 3 different versions of “Mein Kampf“. I always thought that the translations were pathetic, and that was the reason why reading it was a torture. But I finally realized that Hitler was not exactly a brilliant writer (nor Hess, who was responsible for correcting the style of his writing while in prison). However, with patience you can extract some important messages that already announced a very black future for the Jewish people.
Hitler’s machinery was methodical in each of its activities as much as he and his collages were very clear about what they wanted to achieve. Put this clear into your mind regarding the Shoah: Nothing performed with little or no preparation. Because almost everything was written we can confirm than nothing was improvised and that every action against the Jews was launched knowing truly its causes assumed by the Nazis. First it was not possible to use public transport, then to go to public parks was forbidden, later on to study, to work, to buy at shops…, and everything was slowly accepted, because Jews had the firm belief that one day all this would end.
If the wholly plans of the Nazis (the extermination of the Jewish people) would have be known from the beginning, don’t you think that it would have produced a panic situation, a great fright, or even a rebellion?
It is possible that “German people” were carried away by illusions and promises to become again the great Empire they used to be. They dreamed of recovering from the WWI. But at the end, someone manipulated the strings of the puppets, and there also were who decided to cut those strings and confront the Regime, even at the cost of their own lifes.
In addition to the visits to concentration camps that I have been doing every year, I am planning a long trip across Europe, mainly aimed to visit those villages, towns and cities in which there was an extermination of the Jewish population. It was known Einsatzkommandos‘ actions, but strongly supported by the local population (which was sympathetic to the expulsion and even applauded the brutal violence in the streets against the elderly, women and children).
On the outskirts of the towns, and with the help of researchers (not very well seen by the local people), we are gradually starting to discover the mass graves; the final resting place of those who were rounded up and brutally executed.
[ Why those mass graves are not properly listed and/or protected as a landmark or monument to remember what happened? Apathy and disinterest by the public, bureaucrats, politicians, industrialist…? ]
AB: In regard of what you have just mention about the local people, I would like to ask you about their role during the Holocaust. Between 1933 and the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, more than 3.5 million Germans were forced to spend time in several different camps and prisons for political reasons. Approximately 77,000 Germans were executed for one or another form of resistance. Many of these Germans had served in civil positions, government or in the military accused in subversion and conspiracy against the Nazis. That amount of people might had friends, relatives, known people to them… So why its said that German civilians around the camps claimed to be ignorant about what was going on despite having so many fellow-countrymen inside? Do you really think that the average German citizen didn’t know nothing about the extermination of Jews brought from all parts of Europe? Germany had suffered from one of the worst depressions of all time and people were more than happy to have a scapegoat: The Jews. The government was fascist, so going against them was suicide. So, since dissenting from the Nazis meant death, there was no reason not to profit from the policies. Plus, most people probably never wanted to know the big picture like following the motto: “Help the government round up your neighbors and you’re safe. Just don’t ask what the government will do with them“. As you have visited mostly all camps, did you talk with locals about it, or heard something from senior civilians who lived around the area or from whom had any contact with the SS guards at that time? Do you really think that the majority of German public opinion was completely indifferent to what was happening?
JM: Let me tell you something. Today we are used to live in a world of technology and communication. Almost everyone has a profile in a social network, we can send instant messages (without having to wait for letters around the world), we can maintain a video-conference with anyone on the planet…, because information has become Global. Today, any news is known to the World in just seconds. Before it was not like this. We must come back to an era in which information was transmitted by radio, by short films at the cinema or published in public places. Or even through the press… We all know the strength of the Propaganda Ministry at that moment (led by Joseph Goebbels) and its ability to neutralize the media that was against the Regime. So, It is not a question to discuss that many Germans saw how others made their neighbors disappeared. It was an open secret that the camps were used as a tool of “re-education” by the Nazi Regime. Because of the terror imposed, prisoners released from Dachau, Sachsenhausen…, must maintain strict silence about what happened inside there.
What happened soon after, with the extermination of the Jewish people it is a subject that will always be a matter of intense debate. There are those who think that the society and local people around the camps knew perfectly what was going on and there are those who think that they didn’t have any clue or they weren’t sure and really were too dubious to believe because what they thought was just gossips spread by the enemy propaganda. In my personal opinion and for the reasons I said before, I think that not all the citizens, population or society in general had a clear idea of what was happening. But this does not relieve them of the responsibility for not having faced a totalitarian regime based on terror.
I remember a visit to the concentration camp of Plaszow, next Krakow. With much effort I could recognize perfectly the ruins of the synagogue, and a large house that was used by the Gestapo. Despite the years, the house is in an enviable condition, except the bars that protect the basement windows. They are completely oxidized. Nobody cares for them. In this basement are still the torture chambers of the Gestapo. Nowhere advertised. There’s no sign that stand out.
I went to the concierge of the house and just when it seemed she was going to allow me to access to the basement, then immediately came a car and a group of people came out. They looked at me menacingly standing in a line just a few meters from me. It was clear they didn’t wanted me there and if I would insisted in my determination they made clear with their body language that they would use physical force against me. I chose to get out of there without saying anything. But there will be a new opportunity soon.
I want to tell you other anecdote. Some years ago and during a walk through Berlin in the winter, trying to locate where the famous Hitler’s bunker was (now there are signs that clearly indicate it), I requested the help of a neighbor, he was an elderly gentleman. It seems it was not a normal or pleasant question for him to be asked by a foreigner about such an uncomfortable topic, and I had to leave hastily due his shouting and threats with his fists.
AB: I would appreciate if you can share a little bit more your personal experience after meeting “Mama Koops” for whom I am very puzzled after seeing a picture of her. You mentioned about her briefly during our first interview Holocaust. Part 1: Shame On You!
JM: Little, very little, almost nothing told me Marijke Koops-Stokvis about her experience with the Shoah. It was people very close to her that told me she had lost much of her family and it was a very painful issue for her. A taboo subject, which she preferred not to talk about. This is very common in survivors: They did not find enough strength to remove those memories, or the right forum to do it…
But Marijke, “mama Koops” as we called her, was always smiling. She had a special twinkle in her eyes; the brightness of those who appreciate and enjoy every second of their lifes: Carpe Diem. She enjoyed making others happy. We fit very well from the first day and she became my mentor. Actually she became my second mother while I lived those years in Holland.
That Marijke was Jewish was something not to be discussed. Quiet and elegant woman, with a curved nose and very sharp facial features. I often think about her and I am sorry not having been able to gain her trust and to open her heart while she was with us. Last time I visited them at their beautiful home in The Hague, it was some years ago, and they welcomed me with love. She was proud that we could keep all our conversation in Dutch, language that I learned many years ago.
The most important lesson I got from her was without doubt her ability to forgive, not to forget. Her physical presence symbolized temperance, peace, forgiveness and love. At this moment I can not but recall some words of Simon Wiesenthal: “Justice, not revenge”. I could put my hand in the fire: “Mama Koops” was that kind of woman.