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Monday, October 3, 2016

Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women and A Little Bit About Hamilton

Very often I cannot help laughing when I think of the surprise you will have when you see the woman I have become. But one thing I have learned here is to know the true value of everything that is human, of the heights to which the human soul can raise itself... Do you have any new picture of Anita? She will soon be able to write to us herself. - Olga Benário Prestes, from Sarah Helm's Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women
Ian Mackenzie, Creative Commons

I've been listening to Hamilton a ton, and am fascinated by the consistent conversation between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton throughout the musical that I probably won't have the opportunity to watch until it is done by local theater. And you guys, we've really got to get to the bottom of all of this racial tension by then or high schools and local community theater groups giving this thing a shot is going to be a powderkeg.

Anyway, the musical is probably an oversimplification of two very complex people and this summary is going to be an oversimplification of that, but basically Burr's strategy for success is to "talk less, smile more, don't let them know what you're against or what you're for." Hamilton, on the other hand, can't keep his mouth shut if he wanted to. By taking a stand, Hamilton quickly rises in fame, but also makes enemies. Through some of his own weaknesses and the scheming of his enemies, he eventually (spoiler alert) gets shot to death in a duel with Burr, his previous friend. We're reminded of Burr's warning during their first meeting that "Fools who run their mouth off wind up dead."

When Hamilton puts himself out there, Burr warns him that every time he talks it gives his enemies ammunition. Now, you guys, I'm not aware of any enemies. I'm not in a spot where I have to post memes about ignoring the haters, because one has to be known to be hated, and there is abundant evidence that my voice rarely travels beyond the sphere of immediate family. But it's something I think about.

I have a strong feeling that if someone were to pore through the archives of Howie's Book Club, they would find contradictions, mistakes, and times when I just blew it. By cherry-picking through the almost 200 posts, you could probably assemble a pretty good list of quotes both out of context and in that would present a fairly unflattering portrait. At the thought of that I have to admit that I wonder why I do this at all. The impact of this blog on the world is microscopic, and yet the potential for negative impact on me personally is not insignificant. I don't know, but it's possible that I've been unfollowed on Facebook by people who I like because of opinions in here. It doesn't seem out of the question that at one point someone has read something from here aloud to their friend or spouse preceded by the words "listen to this idiot."

What if I talked less and smiled more? What if nobody knew what I was against or what I was for? Like in this universe my interactions online consisted mostly of pictures of hikes and wildlife and the occasional cute picture of my kids selling lemonade. Some of you would be very bored with me, while others would at least not think "what's going on with that guy he used to be cool." (In this alternate universe I used to be cool.)

Wouldn't that be fine? It feels like it might be. I know Hamilton is supposed to be the hero of the story, but what if I just talked myself out of ever having to write another blog post.

Don't worry, it's not going to be this time. Here's a twist: I started this post as the intro to one book I read, and then put it aside, and since then have been reading another book. That book is Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women.

There's probably a million jillion takeaways I could write about here, and this is close to 700-pages which is why you should read books IN ADDITION to blogs (not instead of, you guys). This thing is not a substitute, it turns out, for the culmination of years of research from the author and lifetime of living and then reliving the horrors of these poor, brave, resilient, amazing women.

Marlene shows her mother in her last days, lying asleep in bed. 'She has become beautiful again in old age,' says Marlene's inscription. 'She is cared for like a baby and never speaks or smiles. I see the shadow of her imprisonment falling across the end of her life, unfinished business. In another place or time the shadow could have fallen on me or my child. Would I know how to be brave?
We can definitely talk about the women who risked their lives daily by looking out for the weaker, older, or sicker among them. Or the terrifying idea that in every community there is a sub-group of sadistic monsters who quietly go about their lives tormenting people on a small scale like weeds waiting to take over a garden if left unchecked. But if they are ignored, or worse, encouraged in a society where such cruelty and deep disregard for human life is grounds for promotion, they can enact brutality most civil societies thought wasn't possible.

OK, let's talk about that a little, because it goes to my larger point. There are scary things on the internet that I'd prefer not to delve into but that I hear about. Like there are videos on the internet of women in high heels stomping on cats and dogs until they die because that is someone's sexual fetish. This isn't something I like to think about and aside from seeing enough about it from reputable sources to know that it exists, it's not something I've looked into. But wouldn't it be nicer not to even know that it exists? I contend that no, it would not.

It's important to know and be aware that there are enough people to frequent these websites to make them profitable, and enough "models" who will do this, and photographers who will capture it, and people who will find the animals, and clean up the mess afterward, and people who will upload them to websites. We need to know that they are there because in the right environment, they will aid in the destruction of a livable society. Everything I said applies to child pornographers, too. Or the folks who congregate on websites and share tips for seducing young children on internet forums where they like to gather and talk about Minecraft. Or so-called "men's rights" activists who gather in secret to hack into the accounts of women who have the gall to call out sexism in video games in order to publish private information, like their parents' phone numbers, so they can call in SWAT raids and death and rape threats and make video games in which players beat these women to death.

I'm not going to link any of that refuse because I don't want it to get any more clicks, but I'm not making this stuff up.

These people shop with us, and they go to school with us, and they work with us. You might marry one and not know it. Your son or daughter's best friend may expose them to something monstrous when they're on a sleepover. Or just on their phone while they're in class. We don't know what people get up to in their free time, but us not knowing does not make them go away. And if somehow (and this is wholly hypothetical), your nation elects a leader who values people who are fundamentally unable to experience empathy, they will be given power over all of us because suddenly cruelty and sadism is a job quality.

Let's say you have a dirty job that needs doing, and this job is (again hypothetically) to root out members of a certain religion or racial group because they were deemed to be dangerous to the greater populous. Most people you and I know would not enjoy this job, as it entails separating families from their loved ones for no reason other than the border they were born within or the church they go to. Some would do it out of a feeling of duty towards their nation. Or because it's their job. Others would do it because they believe in an organized society of laws and the flaunting of said laws motivates them. But there will be people who do it because they like to do it.

One of the chief guards of the camp was Maria Mandl, who often beat Jews to death in front of the other prisoners. After one occasion, when a woman was kicked to death, Maria Bielicka, a prisoner, remembers the following:
But a strange thing happened after that. I had a friend who had a job cleaning in the guards' hostels. One of the senior guards had a piano in her room. One day my friend went in and heard the most beautiful music. The woman who was playing was lost in a world of her own -- in ecstasy. It was the same guard who had murdered the Jewish woman a few days earlier.
These people have wanted to have power over a group they consider beneath them for a long time. They've fantasized about it. They've posted secretly (or openly) on internet forums about the things they'd like to do to (hypothetically) Muslims and women and Mexicans and gays and Democrats, or Christians and American soldiers and police officers. They've posted "memes" that parade around as "jokes" about how these people should really be dead because they aren't even really people. Not like they themselves are people. These are the kind of people who would happily pose for a picture with a smile alongside the dogs they've trained to attack and maim. Who will send these dogs after an underfed woman who has the gall to slip and fall in the mud while trying to push a cart full of sand through a swamp.

Now I don't doubt that this tiny fraction of our population is taking this out on somebody in their lives. And I really grieve for them and I think we need to be aware of it and tell each other that we won't stand for it. Part of our job is to tell the people we love that if they are being targeted and bullied and abused by them, they can tell us because we will believe them and we will not stand for it

That's what we can do on the small scale. But you guys if someone stands up in front of a TV set or a podium and starts egging those people on we need to tell them that it is not OK. Because the thing that happens when we don't is that they start to get bolder. Instead of posting on the internet, they buy guns and go into buildings and shoot people who look different than them. Or they burn down religious buildings. Or they attack people at rallies because they are being told by the man at the podium that he'll make sure they get away with it. Or they shoot or beat unarmed civilians because they know they'll never be found guilty, because virtually no one ever has. This isn't hypothetical it turns out. I fooled you.

If someone tells you that they are going to restore your nation to greatness and the path to greatness lies through members of your own populace that's kind of a red flag. I am not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler because Hitler murdered 6 million people and Trump has murdered zero. So far there's only been one Hitler (though there has also been a Stalin and a Pol Pot and a Slobodan Milošević and an Abubakar Shekau and so many more. Including one Andrew Jackson, the man who is on our 20 dollar bill whose Indian Removal Act resulted in at least 30,000 native deaths.) 

I am concerned, however, that the same people who think that Hitler was a great man are openly campaigning for Trump. Is Donald Trump going to put people in ovens? It seems unlikely. But if the people who think that was a good idea think he is and he doesn't really race to correct them and nobody tells them to shut up then something very bad is happening to our country.

By Norbert Radtke (Photographer/ self) (Privatarchiv Norbert Radtke) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

These are real and they have had people in them, whether or not people liked to think about it

The Holocaust started in 1933, when Adolf Hitler began enacting legislation to remove Jews from regular society. First there was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, making illegal a marriage between Jews and Germans and forbidding the employment of German females in Jewish households. Then came Reich Citizen Law, which gave citizenship only to residents of German decent, removing it from Jews, Romani, and Afro-Germans.

Then there were concentration camps. Maybe surprisingly, Ravensbrück generally had very few Jews within its walls. In the early days of Hitler's reign, the camps were for political prisoners who had spoken out against him. The majority of the prisoners were Communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and "asocials," a catch-all that included prostitutes, political agitators, or people who the Gestapo just didn't like for whatever reason they could think of. While Ravensbrück was the only concentration camp just for women, many camps, including the legendary death camp Auschwitz, had women sections of their prisons.

Especially interesting are the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose religion infuriated Hitler, insisting on calling him the Antichrist. They numbered in the thousands in the prison, and contrary to many of the prisoners, all they needed to do was renounce their religion to be free. Of the thousands, only five were known to do so. They further enraged the SS officer in charge by refusing to do any work that they construed as part of the war effort. In every other way they were model citizens, yet this rebellion often resulted in beatings, solitary confinement for months in an underground building known as "the bunker," and execution.

By Unknown (Sometimes mistakenly attributed to Jerzy Tomaszewski who discovered it.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever seen the face of a prisoner behind bars? Freedom lies on the other side of the window. Heaven lies on the other side of the window. On the other side of the door there is only reality.
I could list all of the atrocities, but we've heard them before. Everything you know about the holocaust is here: gas chambers, ovens, shootings, beatings, torture, isolation, slave labor (Siemens, the massive power corporation, had a factory next to the camp and enjoyed slave labor from prisoners who were sometimes beaten to death on the factory floor for not meeting production quotas), medical experimentation (including, but not limited to: removal of limbs in attempt to graft them onto another person, removal of a collarbone from one patient to be transplanted into another, and cutting limbs and filling the wounds with dirt, glass, and garbage in order to introduce infection), and pure cruelty.  

You kind of know what you're getting into reading a book about a concentration camp. It's rough. It's not what I wanted to talk about, though.

What I really want to talk about is from a few minor passages in this book.

In 1941, when the war had started, Hitler used the fervor over war as a distraction so he could begin his ultimate goal: mass murder. He was searching for a way to kill the most people with the least amount of money and effort. To test out various methods, he started with what he called "useless mouths," or people who needed to be fed but were unable to contribute to the nation's cause. These were the mentally ill and elderly. They weren't sneaky enough, though.
During the spring and summer of 1941 a form of silent protest began across Germany. Families placed identical condolence notices in the newspapers, expressing their disbelief at the 'incomprehensible' news they had received of a loved one's sudden death. Lawyers acting for families of patients still in asylums said families were 'being made fools of' by the 'monstrous programme' and by the 'flimsy camouflage' used to cover things up. Those responsible had 'lost a sense of the difference between right and wrong', wrote another Catholic Priest.
On 3 August 1941 came the most serious protest yet. Count Clemens August Graf von Galen, bishop of Münster, took to the pulpit to condemn the murders: an 'unproductive life' was no reason to kill. By this time articles about the killings and the cover-up had begun to appear in the foreign press, most notably the New York Times.
People were speaking up. They were taking a stand. In the case of these clergymen, at great personal risk, knowing that anyone who spoke out against Hitler quickly disappeared. What's especially important to me is that these were people with a great deal of influence and privilege speaking up for their loved ones who couldn't speak up for themselves. That's laudable, but also understandable. We tend to raise a ruckus when someone we know and love is being oppressed. But then there's this tiny little part that struck my heart for some reason. This is from from Wolfgang, a schoolchild at the time of Ravensbrück:
Wolfgang's father had a laundry in town, where twenty prisoners worked, washing clothes -- military clothes and prisoners' clothes. 'My father sometimes smuggled a piece of bread into the clothes. I didn't understand how it could be done but I didn't ask questions. Nobody did.'
Wolfgang remembers his father sewing pieces of bread into the clothes of prisoners. His father, during the darkest time in his country's history, found a way to fight back, even if it was minuscule in the grand scheme, it meant a lot. And Wolfgang remembered it for the rest of his life. And now so do we. Because of that little act of kindness and many more like it from prisoners within the prison, the occasional kind guard, and people in the surrounding area, we have a historical record of people who did what they could to lessen the horrors.

I've seen the memes, you guys. Both parties liken the opposition's candidate to Hitler. It's like what you do. That's not what I'm trying to do here (aside from reminding everyone, again, that current Nazis openly advocate for one of the candidates). I read a book about the holocaust and I started thinking about it and I made the decision that I'm going to stand up against this guy because he's racist and sexist. That's what I do with this blog. You can unfollow me for the duration, I get it. Hopefully in December we go back to banter about 80s movies. If we disagree, then seeing my constant updates probably cause the same kind of anxiety I get when I see polls saying that this race is now a dead heat and nobody needs more heartburn. This fight isn't going anywhere, though, and I guess neither am I.