The Twenty Seventh of January is International Day in Memory of the victims of the Holocaust, commemorating the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, between 1933 and 1945 by Nazi Germany. This date was chosen as it was the day the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland in 1945. Six million European Jews, together with countless others, perished in camps like Auschwitz that were doted across Eastern Europe. Forever will we associate Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrűck, Belsen and Auschwitz, to name some of the 23 main concentration camps, with unspeakable horror.
On the day following Holocaust Memorial Day, a British television station, Channel 4, broadcast a documentary film which hitherto had been deemed too awful to be screened; it was entitled “The Holocaust film too shocking to show – ‘Night Will Fall’.” (Note 1) Alfred Hitchcock was its main editor. I suspect it is still ‘too awful to show’ but the producers believe it needs to be shown, as the knowledge of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in pursuit of their ‘Final Solution’ fade from our collective consciousness.
I recorded the programme and watched it the following day; too depressing to be watched at night! The film is the result of the editing of hundreds of hours of footage shot by the military press as the Allied Forces liberated the various concentration camps.
I have read ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis & the Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees and more recently books written by Holocaust survivors like Edith Eger (‘The Choice’) and Primo Levi (‘If This is a Man’). Jack Fairweather wrote an interesting book (The Volunteer) about a Polish underground operative Witold Pilecki who volunteered to become a prisoner of Auschwitz so he could tell the outside world what was happening in the camp. The situations millions found themselves in has been portrayed by films such as Sophie’s Choice (1982 Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline), Schindler’s List (1992 Liam Neeson) or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). I thought I had some idea of what had gone on in these camps.
During my Army service I spend six years in Germany, part of the British Army of The Rhine (BAOR). At that time Germany was divided into West and East (Note 2); East Germany was a member of the communist Warsaw Pact, which was considered to be a real threat to western democracies. BAOR was part of NATO, which covered most democratic European countries. We trained and trained for something we hoped would never happen! It didn’t ….. so we were successful in providing some deterrence. Parts of each year were spent on the NATO training area of Bergen-Hohne, an area some 284 square kilometres in the state of Lower Saxony, north of the City of Hannover
It wasn’t all work and no play and during one three week exercise on a Sunday I went with a chum to the site of the Belsen Concentration camp. Our knowledge of the Nazi’s attempt at the extermination of the Jewish Race was quite board so we were aware what the camp had been and knew there was an exhibition centre. I can only describe our visit as extremely moving and educational. As we left, we drove across a bridge that spanned the railway line by Bergen-Hohne Station. It was by now dark, windy and with a steady relentless drizzle falling. The station overhead lights moved in the wind, rusted metal joints setting up a weird banshee. It didn’t take long for one to imagine, thirty years before, a train of cattle trucks arriving in the station, discharging their human cargo. Soldiers with barking dogs, everyone shouting, the sullen tide of humanity being formed up for their final walk, the two kilometres to Belsen Camp. We knew from our visit that over 50,000 humans had died in Belsen,
Belsen was liberated on 15 April 1945 by soldiers from the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners, half-starved and seriously ill and another 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied.
Typhus was rampant. The horrors of this camp were recorded on film and formed the major part of ‘Night Will Fall’. Most footage was of the burial of these corpses, with the German guards and SS Troopers carrying them from piles and throwing them into a pit. There was no solemnity, no care, no tenderness normally associated with the disposal of a corpse and I find it difficult to find the words to describe what the film portrayed. The skeletons had become like mannequins, a frame with jointed pieces attached by tendons, moving independently every which way. I had a fleeting recollection of the disposal of dead cows during the last BSE epidemic in the UK, but sensed the animals were treated with more respect. But it prompted me to write this postcard – least we forget.
The world has witnessed similar atrocities, most recently the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were attacked by Hutu activists. It is estimated over 1.1 million Rwandans were killed; this included some 800,000 Tutsi. Read ‘Shake Hands with The Devil’, an account by Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire of the failure of the world community to stop it.
Skulls and bones in Rwanda
During World War One over three quarters of the Armenian population of two million were systematically killed by Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire.
In Russia during Stalin’s reign (1946-1953) it’s estimated that 20 million perished in his Gulags, while in China Mao’s pursuit of his Communist ideological aims resulted in the deaths of ‘tens of millions’. In Argentina those who fell foul of the Military Junta (1976-1983) became known as The Disappeared and numbered some 30,000. In the white settlement of Australia, the indigenous Aboriginal People were considered sub-human and treated as such. In Tasmania they were rounded up and exiled to Flinders Island, where they gradually died out. During the 1992 Bosnian War images of prisoners looking half-starved revived memories of the Nazi concentration camps.
Dutch Jews being rounded up in 1941
But the film reminded me that the Nazi’s Final Solution was so developed, so systematic, so unique, so enormous in its goal, the complete extermination of a race of people, that it stands on its own in the history of human depravity.
Least we forget.
Richard 4th February 2022
PS Whoopi Goldberg got herself into hot water this week by saying The Holocaust was not about race but about two groups of white people, despite the well-known Nazi view that the Jewish people were an inferior race.
Note 1 The film was made in 1945 but only found by researchers in 2014.
Note 2 Unification followed the fall of the Berlin Wall which came down on 9 November 1989. Britain’s permanent deployment of troops ended in 2020, although a small detachment remains in Bielefeld.