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Laws of Life | Ashes of time: Lessons from the Holocaust

Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching and compelling narratives today which resonates broadly today is the mass killing of an ethno-religious group during the Second World War, the Holocaust wherein Jews were systematically targeted by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime for en masse termination.

Hitler rose to power on the outrageous premise, out of many, that the Jews were behind Germany’s shame and ruin during the aftermath of World War I.

He made full use of this prejudice during his and his party’s time in power, in particular during the height of the Second World War.

The Holocaust consisted of the harassment, rounding up, concentration, maltreatment, and eventual systematic murder of more or less 6 million Jews.

The National Socialists (or Nazis) came up with plentiful and brutal ways of killing the Jews, the most prominent of which was herding their poor victims into sealed chambers within the infamous concentration camps and pumping toxic gas from the outside going in.

Another brutal method of elimination proved to be summary executions and continued roughing up by the Schutzstaffel or SS whose task it was to run and administer the camps.

Two of the most chilling films capturing the brutality of this human cataclysm stands to be the 2002 film Mathieu Kassovitz film “Amen”, and the 1993 Spielberg epic “Schindler’s List”.

Both films evoke a strong sense of struggle and an attempt to find hope against the Europe-wide backdrop of darkness and misery as the killings went on.

The former film chronicles the struggles of a fictional Catholic priest serving in the Vatican, ably depicted by Kassovitz, who was informed about the genocide against the Jewish people, and his relationship with SS Officer Kurt Gerstein, played by Ulrich Tukur.

Tukur’s character struggles to collect clear and convincing evidence which would later go on to prove that such tragedy did in fact happen, at the same time convincing the Catholic hierarchy headed by then-Pope Pius XII to take a firmer stance against the Nazi Regime, while Kassovitz’s character goes the extra mile by being rounded up with the Jews and taken to a concentration camp after failing in his attempts to get his superiors to act.

The film’s twist ending will certainly leave its viewers appalled and confounded, although historical evidence would suggest that the Church did in fact take steps to slow down and stand against the Holocaust.

The latter movie, which won numerous accolades after its release early in the last decade of the previous millennium, speaks about the sheer evil lurking within human beings, which being goaded into action by external stimuli and the right set of circumstances, can serve to inflict much pain and suffering on other human beings without relent or remorse.

Ralph Fiennes’ chilling character, SS officer Amon Goeth, preyed on the prisoners under his charge by subjecting them to cruelty and brutality on a daily basis, telling camp prisoners on his fist day “I am [your] god”.

No truer did this declaration seem in the movie when he started shooting Jews from the upper floor windows of his residence near the concentration camp.

Oskar Schindler, of course, adeptly played by Liam Neeson, did what he could and displayed a parallel to King Cyrus of Persia, using what relatively little power and money he had to protect the lives of innocent Jews.

It is worth mentioning the stark contrasts between the characters of Gerstein and Goeth, one having used his position to expose the systematic killings perpetrated by the Nazi regime during the Second World War, and the other actively and happily partaking in its consummation, acting on what he understood as “duty” and “loyalty” to Hitler’s ideology, and more precisely the orders to have the Jews (more specifically the Jews in the Soviet Union) “exterminated as partisans”.

It is a careful and poignant reminder, a timeless one perhaps, that both good and evil can reside in the depths of one’s decisions and convictions, and that systems, too, are liable for greater evils which can be imposed upon a weak, prejudiced, and defenseless populace.

I do hope one day to visit the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp one day, and see for myself the most impactful monument to one of the greatest human excesses committed in the 20th century, with the camp still left standing to remind us and the generations beyond not to permit or countenance the triumphs of tragedy.

Gabriel Christian J. Lacson
Gabriel Christian J. Lacson
“Those who look only to the past or to the present are certain to miss the future.” - John F. Kennedy

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