As World War II progressed, concentration camps such as Dachau, which opened in March 1933 and could accommodate 5,000 people, ballooned in size and no one could escape the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. By the end of the war, when the Americans liberated Dachau in 1945, Konnilyn Feig points out the camp held 30,000 prisoners, six times what it could accommodate, and “8,000 unburied corpses.” What did the people next to Dachau think? What did they do when trains pulled into the camp, unloaded, and went out empty? What did they do when the work details left and returned every night?

John A. Williams, in his novel Clifford’s Blues, points out the psychological disconnect it took to perpetrate and live amidst all of the violence. In his January 7, 1943, diary entry, Clifford Pepperidge details how Dieter and Anna Lange, the German SS couple whom he lives with Dachau, respond to the environment of Dachau and also to the encroaching Allied forces. Anna turns a blind eye to what’s occurring: “she didn’t see the bodies piled up beside the morgue or in the ditches near the train sidings or thrown against the four sides of the crematorium. She didn’t know that a prisoner found with a single louse on him went to his death.”

As the wife of an SS officer, she chose to ignore all of it because it did not affect her. However, if others discovered that her husband, Dieter, as gay and that she was a lesbian, they would be incarcerated right next to Clifford and possibly executed. Later, in October 1944, Clifford writes about how Anna’s father decided to let Anna marry Dieter. Her father voted for Hitler because “[h]e liked what the Nazis said they would do for Germany,” and since Dieter was an officer, he couldn’t refuse. However, Anna did not know herself. As Clifford writes, “Queer? She didn’t know what queer was. She had no friends even to talk to about such things.” She did not know herself, her own sexuality. How would her life have been different if she knew herself? If she learned about sexuality? Would she have become an upwardly mobile accomplice in genocide?

Anna’s lust for power and prestige trumped even her own self and her own identity, and that lust for upward mobility caused her to turn a blind eye to the violence and atrocities occurring all around her. In this way, he willing blindness mirrors countless others during the period, specifically entire nations such as England, France, and the United States before the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. As Clifford points out, the Evian Conference in 1938 “was about the Jews,” and no country would agree to accept Jews refugees from Germany or Austria, so, Jews started coming into Dachau and to camps all of Germany, as Clifford writes, “the tailors are still busy making six-pointed gold stars and triangles” for all of the new prisoners.

While the Nazis continued to gain power, annexing Austria in March 1938, no country did anything. Clifford states that while the SS in Dachau strut around with their chests puffed out, “[t]he English did nothing, the Russians did nothing, and the French did nothing.” Why did they not do anything when they saw what Hitler and the Nazis were doing? Clifford states it plainly, “Well, the Germans weren’t shitting on their doorsteps.” While Anna turned a blind and a deaf ear to the atrocities in order to further herself and to hide her true self, the nations Clifford mentions did nothing because nothing impacted them specifically. The Nazis were not yet at their front door, and since that was the case, they decided not to act. However, when the Nazis threatened France and England directly, their attitudes quickly shifted.

All of this makes me think about our inaction during times of crisis and our inaction in the face of things such as fascism. Writing before the war about his trip to Russia in 1922 in A Long Way from Home, Claude McKay details riding on a train in Germany and asking the waiter why the cream he received for his coffee was more like water than cream. The waiter tells him, “But Mister, we have no cream at ll. They have taken away all our cows from us, and what little milk we have we must give to our babies.” McKay had read that one of the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles was that the Germans “had to give up thousands of heads of cattle to the Allies.” He knew this as a fact; however, it did not register in reality for him until his conversation with the waiter.

McKay concludes the anecdote with an aside where he writes, “We are, the majority of us, merely sentimental about the suffering of others. Only when direct experience twists our own guts out of place are we really able to understand. I remember once hearing a nice comfortable bohemian noble woman ecstatically exclaim: ‘J’aime la souffrance! J’aime la souffrance!’ Yes! She loved vicariously the suffering of others.”

McKay highlights that even if we know what is happening, we may not act because it is still an abstract thought in our head. When we interact with individuals who the oppression impacts and when we see the impacts with our own eyes, then we understand and act. Or, if we’re like Anna, fail to act. Do we want to assist in times of need? Or, do we want to turn a blind eye because it doesn’t affect me personally? These two questions lie at the heart of a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately. One indicates empathy and love for our neighbor. The other indicates selfishness and pride through a belief that my life matters than the life of the person suffering the atrocity.

The question we choose to answer tells us about ourselves, and before we can either one of those questions, we must ask ourselves: Am I ready to see what my answer will be? We must examine ourselves and confront ourselves and be prepared for the answer that stares back at us. I ask myself about my reflection all the time. What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to say? What am I willing to do to make sure that the beliefs an values I hold for equity for all are fulfilled? When I ask myself those questions, I don’t always like what I see.

I know I have the privilege to blend into the background, like Anna. My phenotype, nationality, religion, and more allow me to do just that. However, is that what I should do? Is that what I would do? I don’t know the exact answer right now because every time I ask myself those questions, my answers to myself change. All I know is that I want to assist during times of crisis, not turn a blind eye. I want to help others and make sure they thrive and succeed. I don’t want to be Anna. I don’t want to be France, England, or Russia. I want to stand up for humanity and love.

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 )

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: