Sal­vage to Buchen­wald and back

The Compass - - OPINION -

When­ever I re­turn from away to our home in Sal­vage, I al­ways feel a pro­found sense of calm come over me. Ever since peo­ple in boats dis­cov­ered it, it has been known as a safe har­bour on this part of the north­east coast. I feel safe here like no other place I know.

Be­fore I went away in the early days of Oc­to­ber I wrote a col­umn con­trast­ing the gen­eros­ity and co-op­er­a­tion of our peo­ple dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Igor with the pure evil I ex­pected to find when I reached the death camp where my un­cle was mur­dered, at Buchen­wald in Ger­many. Mem­bers of our fam­ily trav­elled to Ger­many to erect a plaque hon­our­ing the me­mory of those ex­ter­mi­nated there. Frank Pick­ers­gill’s name was among them.

I wrote then: “My hope is that, car­ry­ing with me, like a tal­is­man, some of the spirit of pro­found hu­man­ity that is at the core of ru­ral New­found­land and Labrador … I will suc­ceed in ward­ing off the evil that per­me­ates the ter­ri­ble place called Buchen­wald and be able re­turn home safely to tell you more of what hap­pened.”

I am home, I am safe, but it was a bruis­ing or­deal. The thoughts and emo­tions I felt there had an ef­fect that will be with me for the rest of my life.

In 1937, two years be­fore the Sec­ond World War was de­clared, the Death Camp at Buchen­wald was built on a coun­try hill­side just out­side Weimar, the for­mer cap­i­tal of Ger­many. It was de­signed and equipped to em­prison, use for slave labour, tor­ture and ul­ti­mately murder all those who stood be­tween Hitler and the re­al­iza­tion of his di­a­bol­i­cal dream for the planet Earth.

Down the hill­side from the camp, be­yond the perime­ter fence con­sist­ing of three kilo­me­tres of barbed wire, suf­fi­ciently elec­tri­fied to guar­an­tee cer­tain death, there were a num­ber of vi­ilages.

The vil­lagers watched from home as the con­struc­tion of Buchen­wald pro­ceeded. They could see the trucks and trains that brought the cre­ma­tory ovens, spe­cially de­signed and man­u­fac­tured by the fam­ily-run en­gi­neer­ing firm of Topf & Sons in the nearby town of Wer­furt. Peo­ple they knew might have had jobs there.

The vil­lagers could see the trucks and trains that brought the pris­on­ers, though they would have needed pow­er­ful binoc­u­lars to take in all the de­tail of the bru­tal beat­ings meted out to the new ar­rivals.

The vil­lagers would have had no trou­ble mak­ing out with the naked eye the clouds of black smoke that bil­lowed daily out of the the cre­ma­to­rium smoke­stack, its dark brick sil­hou­ette the tallest struc­ture in view.

On Sept. 10, 1944, those clouds con­tained the last rem­nants of Frank Pick­ers­gill, the un­cle I never met.

He and 15 oth­ers were marched to the cre­ma­to­rium from their hut, Block 17. They were pushed down the stone stairs un­der a rain of blows into the “ le­ichenkeller,” the corpse cel­lar. There the beat­ings con­tin­ued with in­creased sav­agery. The necks of the semi-con­scious, blood-soaked men were en­cir­cled with butcher’s wire. They were hoisted up, and the wire looped over 16 of the 48 steel hooks imbed­ded high in the white-washed con­crete walls. The last man took 20 to die.

The still-warm corpses were heaped on a pur­pose-built el­e­va­tor and lifted to the Topf & Sons ovens wait­ing on the floor above to in­cin­er­ate them. If the wind was blow­ing from the south that day, the win­dow sills of the houses in thye vil­lage be­low would have been dusted with the last traces of my un­cle and his fel­lows.

Of the 250,000 who en­tered the main gate, my un­cle joined the 56,000 who did not come out.

Apart from the beat­ings, in­cluded in the pro­ce­dure only for the self-sati­safac­tion of the sadis­tic guards, the whole op­er­a­tion un­folded with well thought-out pre­ci­sion. As I look out the win­dow across the har­bour, this thought comes to mind. Here, we de­sign fish plants to con­vert, as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble, fish into food. The plant at Buchen­wald con­verted, as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble, hu­man be­ings into smoke.

How could such or­ga­nized mon­stros­ity hap­pen, I thought, and what can we do to en­sure that it never does again?

The an­swer may lie in the life of an­other man from Block 17 — Stephane Hes­sel. A re­sis­tance fighter in France, he was de­liv­ered to Buchen­wald chained to­gether in the same batch of pris­on­ers as my un­cle. When those 16 did not re­turn from the cre­ma­to­rium, Hes­sel knew he had only days to live. He and two oth­ers made a dar­ing es­cape by sub­sti­tut­ing their iden­ti­ties for three other pris­on­ers dy­ing from the typhoid ex­per­i­ments the Nazis were car­ry­ing out on the in­mates.

Af­ter the war he made his way home to Paris, joined the diplo­matic corps, was posted to the newly formed United Na­tions in New York, where he par­tic­i­pated in writ­ing the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights. Now 93, Am­bas­sador Hes­sel has de­voted his life to pro­mot­ing the guide­lines to hu­man de­cency clearly laid out in that all-im­por­tant doc­u­ment.

He did so again Oct. 15 when he stood in the court­yard of the Buchen­wald cre­ma­to­rium and ad­dressed the 75 of us at the cer­e­mony ded­i­cat­ing a plaque to his fallen com­rades. It is a rare oc­ca­sion to feel you are in the pres­ence of a higher be­ing, a be­ing who glows with a light from within. It is the light of Good­ness. The light of Love.

I felt it when I shook his hand and heard him de­scribe how my un­cle had never stopped, with jokes, games and con­ver­sa­tion, try­ing to keep up the morale of his fel­low pris­on­ers in Block 17.

We may never know how such a mon­strous thing as Buchen­wald could hap­pen. How can we con­struct a so­ci­ety where it never hap­pens again? The ma­chine for that task is the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights. What fu­els that ma­chine is Love.

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