Man on a Barrel-Beginning of the Holocaust

Man on a Barrel



In one of Hanna Krall’s books Marek Edelman recalls a scene he witnessed.  It’s a story of a man on a barrel.  It’s straightforward, not particularly shocking, considering what happened later, on the surface it would seem almost humorous and not note worthy.  But it wasn’t.

Marek Edelman recalls a scene on the streets of German occupied Warsaw.  It was not long after the conquest of Poland.  The Warsaw Ghetto did not exist yet.  A crowd (mainly Jewish) gathered around a barrel on Żelazna Street.  A normal wooden barrel.  On this barrel there was a short old Jew who had a long beard.  Two German officers (Dr. Edelman does not specify whether they were SS or Wehrmacht, or police, not that it mattered really), using big tailoring scissors were cutting off his beard.  They were laughing, as was a large part of the crowd, the rest simply looked on.  Objectively speaking, according to Dr. Edelman the scene was comical, like a movie gag.  There was nothing really frightening happening.  An old, funny looking man had his beard cut off.  There was no Ghetto then, no starvation, no Treblinka, no Holocaust, just one old man who was losing his beard.  No big deal.

It was then that Marek Edelman decided to never let himself “be put on a barrel” by anyone, anytime.  It is also thanks to that barrel that Treblinka became possible.  It was one of the first steps in perpetrating on of the biggest crimes in human history.  And it started with a man on a barrel, or a sign in a shop window, a speech, a law, a wall, a gate, a train, a sealed car.  Great crimes against humanity do not start with a Treblinka or an Auschwitz, or a death march, or Srebrenica.  They start with little things.

Yes, the Holocaust was a result of something.  It did not just happen.  It had its genesis, it was a “logical” conclusion to a deliberate policy of dehumanization of a certain people.  In this case it was the Jews.  And in that the Holocaust is both unique and common at the same time.  It is unique because an innocent people were condemned to senseless slaughter for no logical reason, just hatred, and murdered with industrial German efficiency.  It is also common because while the Jews were victims of the Holocaust, there were other nations who suffered similar tragic fate.  Do not misunderstand, I am not trying to belittle the tragedy and importance of the Shoah.  I have studied the Holocaust for sometime and I grieve for the victims as if they were my own family, but this could happen to any people.  In fact it did, not on the same scale, but that was not through lack of effort.  And that is what makes the Holocaust even more tragic.  If it was only a one time occurrence then we could all grieve, learn and move on to better things.  But it was not.  We grieved, we moved on, but we never learned.

And that is one of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust.  “Never Again” turned out to be just an empty slogan, and as slogans go, this one was even more meaningless than most.  We have learned nothing.  And we let other peoples suffer genocide, and we watched.  We did not even have the pathetic (and false) excuse of not knowing.  We watched and let it happen.  Great evil happens not when bad people commit evil acts, but when good people let them.  Most watched idly, some because there was nothing they could do, but cry for the victims.  Most however did not even shed a tear.  Some were relieved that it was not them or their people suffering.  Some others who could do something, did nothing.  Most of the world did not want to fight for Danzig, and they sure as hell were not going to die for the Jews.  Allied propaganda purposefully kept quiet about what it knew of the Shoah.  And they did know.  Reports of the Jews’ suffering reached the Allies as early as 1940.  They were regular and detailed.  Jan Karski, a Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army) courier even went to Belzec Death Camp dressed as a guard so he could give a personal testimony of what he saw.  Before his last trip to the West he received a report from inside the Warsaw Ghetto and spoke with anyone who listened in London and in America.  Everyone knew.  No one did a damned thing.  They used to old excuse that by winning the war they would stop the Holocaust.  Meanwhile 6 million people got slaughtered.

Six million, such an artificial number.  Its almost unimaginable.  And it does not convey the true meaning and pain of the Holocaust.  Its easier to think about such a huge number than about the individuals.  Yes six million sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers.  How do you fit six million in your head.  Well, you don’t.  It becomes arbitrary, a statistic, hardly ever leaving the plain of mathematics.   Just like Eichmann we stop seeing the people, instead we see numbers.  Its not real.  Can we grieve for six million people?  How many tears are enough?  How many nightmares does it take to understand?  We see historians arguing over the exact number killed, 5.8 million, 5.9 million, 6, more than 6.  Each number looks like a math problem.  But they were not math problems, or statistics, they were people.  People who laughed, who cried, some were great people, some were undoubtedly pretty shitty individuals.  Some were happy, some sad.  Some loved and were loved by others.  Some were lonely.  Some were good looking.  Some ugly as sin.  Some were brilliant, others could hardly read or write.  How do you think about the Shoah?

Most of us don’t think about it at all, and worst of all, don’t care at all.  Just as when it was happening, we look away.  I heard many times a complaint that “we get it already!!!  We know, now shut up and lets move on, enough with this Holocaust!!!”  Do we?  Do we really get it when we talk and think like that?  When we are tired of “constantly” being reminded of the Holocaust.  Actually we don’t get it at all.  We did not want to watch about Srebrenica or Rwanda either.  Its not very pleasant to watch it on TV while we’re eating.  So we switch the channel to a game show, an action movie, a comedy show, anything, as long as we don’t have to watch the unpleasant pictures.  And we don’t want to learn about the Holocaust.  We are all experts, we know the number 6 million.  We know the names of Hitler, Eichmann, Auschwitz.  We know, shut up already.  It happened a long time ago, in some far away place most of us couldn’t find on a map.  Every once in a while a movie comes out, some more inspiring than others.  Some good, some not so good.  And we see it as a movie.  Hell, we watched movies about the end of the world, nuclear destruction, zombies even.  Some story about some people dying wont move us at all.  We marvel at the powerful scenes in some of those movies.  Sometimes we cry.  But then again, we cried when Bambi’s mother was shot.  A fucking cartoon got as many tears as 6 million people!!!

Yes, a cartoon of a cute, well drawn animal made us cry.  Did that old Jew make any of you cry?  Probable not.  After all he was only getting his beard cut off.  He looked silly anyway.  What we don’t think about is what happened to him after he finally got off that barrel.  He might have been shot right after.  Or he was let go.  Later he was forced to live in an overcrowded Ghetto.  Probably surviving on 200 calories per day.  Until he, if he was lucky, got sick and died of typhoid fever.  If he was not so lucky he went to Umschlagplatz.  There he waited for the train to arrive.  He might have been beaten, or not.  Maybe he was with his family.  Or maybe his family had already perished.  Then he was herded onto the train.  Inside a cattle car, stuffed, with not even a room to sit.  He might have suffocated in that train car.  A body standing until his co-victims were let out onto a ramp, which led into a camp, which lead into a changing room.  He might have survived all those long hours on the train.  And he was led into that room.  There he was told to strip.  And with hundreds of others he was led into a “delousing room.”  The doors were shut.  And gas came in.  He was not the first to die, he heard screaming, prayers, scratching.  Maybe he prayed himself, to his unmerciful god.  A god that wouldn’t let him be shot, or die of Typhoid, or suffocate inside a train car.  A god that let him hear the screams.  His own scream was the loudest.  Or maybe he was quiet, dignified.  He just went away into the night.

One of the aforementioned possibilities had an over 90% chance of happening.  Just imagine.  Out of over 3 million Polish Jews, over 90% ended up like that old man.  Just think about that.  Take the 10 closest members of your family, or 10 of your closest  friends, and imagine 9 of them dead!  Yes, nine.  Nine out of ten.  Your grandparents (lets assume you have all 4), both your parents, two of your uncles, one sister.  All dead.  Only you survived.  You have no family any more.  That is the scale of suffering.  Not some arbitrary number we can not even begin to imagine.  But a person.  Each had his own story.  Each suffered a fate none of us would wish upon our worst enemies.  And that is how it started, with a barrel.  It ended on a death bed, or a street, or a train car, or in a forest, or a gas chamber.  Each story is unique.  Did you hear about a doctor administering poison to her patients?  It was an act of mercy.  No, they were not terminally ill.  Or were they?  Their illness was that they were Jews, condemned to die in a horrific way.  Instead, the few lucky ones died peacefully in a hospital.  Did you hear of the beautiful 19 year old girl who went willingly because she saw her mother on her way to the Umschlagplatz?  She left her boyfriend standing there on the corner, and just went.  She did not want her mother to go through that alone.  Did you hear about the head doctors and managers of shop forced to give “life tickets” (as it turned out most were temporary anyway) to some of their workers while condemning those who did not get them to certain death?  How would you like to be the one who decides who lives and who dies?  Did you hear of Dr. Korczak and a few teachers and nurses who went willingly and knowingly to the gas chambers with the group of children in their care.  They sung songs with them as they were marching to their death.  Just so the children would not be afraid.  Is that sadder than Bambi?  Or do we not want to hear about this any more?

Does it make them too human?  Can you imagine yourself walking with those children, singing, knowing that you will die a horrible death?  Can you imagine not eating for 3 or 5 days?  Can you imagine real hunger?  Can you imagine being afraid all day, every day?  Once, in an interview Marek Edelman went off (he never was too shy to say what he felt) on a couple of reporters who asked him why these people went willingly to Umschlagplatz just on a promise of a couple of loaves of bread.  Yes in the beginning the Germans wanted the Jews to have an illusion.  That illusion was they they were being moved to a work camp.  And who in their right mind would waste bread if they were going to kill them.  So they went with the illusion.  Would you go, willingly?  What if you were offered bread?  Imagine real hunger.  No, not I missed breakfast and will be having a late lunch hunger.  But I have been surviving on 200 calories for months and have not eaten at all for 3 days hunger.  Well to be honest we can’t.  Hardly any of us know what real hunger is.  So we can’t relate.  But we can empathize.  What about the Ghetto policeman, or a Kapo in a camp?  Or a Sonderkomando?  You know those guys who on a promise of being kept alive pulled all those bodies out of the gas chambers and carried them onto carts, then pushed the carts to the crematoria, and threw them into the ovens.  Those guys?  Could we understand them?  Or the Ghetto Policemen, armed with truncheons, they would go out, each given the task of bringing 5 people to Umschlagplatz.  Can we judge them?  Can we say they did wrong?  They were complicit?  Are we capable of judgement over these people?  In the United States a person is judged by a jury of his peers.  Are we really their peers if we can not understand them.  Or care enough to listen about them?  Or even want to?

We hardly think of them as humans.  They are just some stories and numbers.  They don’t have names or faces.  Just as the others who senselessly perished.  Millions of us went to see Transformers.  Not many saw Hotel Rwanda.  Millions buy Dan Brown’s tripe.  Not many read stories, of real people.  And in doing that we become complicit.  Our indifference made the Holocaust possible.  Indifference is worst than the hatred people feel for one another.  They at least have some reason, irrational or not, that’s immaterial.  But they have some “justification” for their feelings.  We on the other hand do not.  We don’t hate.  And as good people that most of us are, we see the Holocaust as an evil thing.  So the question is, why the hell was it allowed to happen?  How the hell could good people allow this to happen?  How could good people just watch, with indifference as others died?  How could we then just say “enough of this already?”  And then we watch as others die?  We get mad when others attack us.  We want to fight.  We go off to Afghanistan and fight.  Great.  But what if we were not strong enough to fight back?  What if others came and started killing us for no reason?  What if others just watched as we got slaughtered?  What if someone put you on a barrel?  While others laughed, or just watched?  You think it can’t happen to you?  Can’t it?  Whatever you are, white, red, yellow or black, it can.  Short, tall, skinny or fat, it can.  Blond, or dark haired.  Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Atheist, it can.  Conservative, or liberal, it can.  Because I guarantee you, whatever the hell you are, there is someone out there who hates you for no reason.  He too does not think of you as a human.  You’re just an object of hate to him.  Not a real person.  He read some book or watched a movie, or heard a story that you are his enemy.  And one day, if he is strong enough, and gets a chance, he will put you on that barrel.  And no one will care.  And no one will cry.


The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have cried many, many heart wrenching tears for the lives lost in the Holocaust, and in Rwanda and in any other ongoing genocidal war. My stomach is sickened, my faith is shaken, and my brain lacks comprehension for why this has happened to our humanity. Where does the hate come from and why has God allowed it? I am a 33 year old American woman, Christian, with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children and I grieve deeply for those senselessly killed. Why? I will never forget their stories, and their faces are imprinted on my conscious. I will teach my children to love and be compassionate and merciful. I will teach them how hate destroys and how love repairs. Please God help me to love enough, to cry enough, to remember enough. Please God never let this happen again and show me how to help.

  2. Thank you Heather. Sometimes tears are enough. When we are powerless to stop evil ourselves at least we care for those who are suffering. Its good to know that there are people who still care and that they will teach their children to care for others. You are to be applauded. The goodness of your heart and the fact that you are not indifferent, along with tears, should bring you strength. That strength is built on a good foundation and will outlast any evil that we witness.

  3. […] out on the first day and say:  We’re going to murder millions of Jews for no good reason.  No, they started preparing people by doing the little things first. It was only then that the Holocaust became possible.  Now of course America is not likely to […]

  4. I have just read your article and it has moved my deeply. I’m 18 years old and I have been reading everything I could find about the Holocaust for a very long time. You are so right when you said that people run to watch Transformers but nobody watches Hotel Rwanda, The pianist, nobody reads the diary of Anne Frank, the nazi and the barber, let this child live, all the incredible literature and movies that deal with real stories of real people… I feel relieved to see that there are people like me out there, people who do not want to forget, people who keep thinking about it, reading about it, even though it’s painful, because concerning the pain that millions suffered it’s our human duty not to forget and not to look away. Especially in my generation I see people making jokes about Hitler, laughing about these things and it disgusts me beyond words. All I think about in those situation is, how could a human being find this funny? There is not one single funny thing about it. Yes, I was very, very disturbed by the picture of the man on the barrell. If you have seen the pianist (which I am absolutely sure you did) you will recall the scene where the SS officers in the warsaw ghetto choose some people from the crowd and force them to dance… they chose an extremely tall woman and a very tiny man to dance together for exampe.. I felt sick to my stomach when I watched that. I think it was one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie. I’m half German and I went to a German high school (though I didn’t grow up in Germany) and we have dealt with this subject so many times. In the German educational system, WW II is the main component of history class. Many of my friends said no, not again.. they were sick of it.. and I just thought that you can NEVER know too much about it. My grandmother has lived through WW II, though she was a child and doesn’t recall much.. My great grandmother was an adult though and I asked her many times… she said they didn’t know. That is the typical response you get from Germans who have lived in that time. Didn’t you know that your neighbours were deported, wasn’t there gossip about the loading of the trains? It happened in the cities… My great-grandfather, a young man back then, was called to war. He was in Warsaw. Did he not see the Ghetto? The thing is, I, living in an entirely different era, an era where war, poverty, hunger has shifted to other geographical areas, where we in the western civilization have everything in excess, where we are insatiate, always wanting the newest ipod out there, the newest laptop out there, caring more about the number of friends in our facebook account than the number of 6 million who were once slaughtered in a time long gone, and we don’t really have the right to judge, because you never know what you would have done. I can’t accuse my grandparents of not having done something. I just want to thank you. Thank you for taking your time, writing about the Holocaust, being aware, caring, showing compassion, being human, as we should all be. M

    • Hello M. Thank you for such a wonderful comment. Its heartening to know that the young of this world are not all ignorant muppets who only think of themselves, and who do indeed care about others, even if those people are from the past. It is thanks to people like you that we will never forget. Yes you might be in the minority, but you are vital, one of the true witnesses who does not turn away from evil just because its unpleasant. Thanks for reading this and thank you for your sensitivity and your kind and inquisitive nature.

      Btw, I mentioned Hanna Krall’s books, if you can get a translation (she writes in Polish) of her works they are wonderful, sometimes surreal, but brilliant. And if you haven’t yet, do read the story of Marek Edelman, a truly great man, and one of my heroes. He never turned away from evil as well, you would like him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: