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Survivor Portrait

For all those
in war
         and the danger of war,
refugees and dispossessed,
sufferers of famine, pestilence
and disaster
                   on this day.

Unknown Auschwitz Satyagraha

On April 21, 1985 I saw a public television program on the Holocaust.  It consisted of the survivors meeting at the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, Yad Vashem I believe it is called, looking for those they had lost and telling the stories of what had happened to them.  Most of the images were tight close-ups of faces saying things the eyes would not forget.

One woman said she had been a prisoner working in a typing pool in Auschwitz.  The SS officer in charge told her when she arrived that she was allowed three mistakes a day or off to the ovens.  They worked twelve hour shifts and typed thousands of reports all in quadruplicate.  And only three mistakes a day.

Eventually, she was transferred to another job, another SS officer.  He seemed to be a gentleman and she couldn't understand why he was in the SS.  On the first day, he took her to a storeroom.  It was in chaos.  He asked, "Do you think you can clean this up?"  Of course she said yes.  He prohibited only one thing.  She was not to open one certain door.

There came a time when she was working in the storeroom and heard screams.  They were like the sounds "of a dying animal, being beaten to death, indescribable really."  Naturally, they came from beyond the forbidden door.  She had to open it.  Behind the door was a set of stairs leading down.  She descended and saw her gentleman SS officer beating a Polish worker with his belt in front of a group of other workers.  She said, "The workers looked up and were struck as if they saw an angel.  They had no idea women had worked above them.  We had no idea there were men there below."  The SS officer looked up too and saw her.  He told her to get out but she didn't move.  He came up the stairs and told her to go back but she didn't move.  She said, "I'm not a hero but something happened.  I grabbed hold of his sleeve and wouldn't let him go.  He told me to leave but I looked into his eyes, for minutes, for a few seconds, for me it seemed like an eternity.  And still I wouldn't  let go of his arm.  Finally he said, 'It's all right, go.'  But I looked into his eyes for another eternity, holding his sleeve for dear life.  Then he said, 'It's all right.  I won't beat them anymore,' and I walked back up the stairs."

Later, she found out that the SS officer had been beating a worker to death with his belt every week, but from then on he stopped.  Still later, just before a death march, the workers sent her a pair of high-topped boots and she believes it was only those boots that kept her alive through the march.  She was an angel for them and those workers were angels for her.

Perhaps this story shows us what might have happened if Gandhi had met Hitler.  Maybe he would have held Hitler's sleeve and searched his mad eyes into his madder soul until Hitler too said, "It's all right.  I won't beat them anymore."

That evening there was a story on the Cambodian Holocaust on Sixty Minutes and the next morning on National Public Radio's Morning Edition a piece on the Armenian Holocaust.

The documentary I think was called "The Gathering", produced by Joel Levitch for Jason Films broadcast on April 21, 1985 on WGBH-TV Boston, MA.

Editorial Comment:  I first published this piece online on August 1, 1997, although I wrote it the 1980s, read it publicly, and produced a video version of the piece that was cablecast locally and exhibited in a museum show on courage in NYC in the early 1990s.  

May we remember the example of this woman
and Dr King and Desmond Tutu and Gandhi
and Tolstoy and Thoreau and King Ashoka and
create peace on this day,
if only for a moment,
         for a breath,
         for ourselves.

Cross-posted to

Originally posted to gmoke on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 09:50 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  a women's barrack at birkenau (12+ / 0-)

    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

    i've read a lot of gandhi. i generally believe in his theories. they would not have stopped hitler.

    there were non-violent protesters against the nazis- like rupert mayer, the catholic priest in munich, who preached that catholicism and nazism were incompatible. he was imprisoned, then sent to a remote mountain monastery, where he was held until the end of the war. by then, he was so weakened and ill that he didn't survive the end of 1945.

    © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

    by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:12:37 PM PST

    •  Today the nonviolent protesters (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Turkana, Demi Moaned

      amongst us are the only ones acting to stop further genocides like the Holocaust. But they still go on as we watch. Gandhi would probably have also been ineffective in Sudan in stopping today's slaughter of the Darfurians. On another level, the protesters of Palestinian occupation in Israel and Palestine are also probably having little effect. Who even hears about them?

      Sometimes, doing something is better than doing nothing no matter how ineffective it may be.

      •  that's a complex issue (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        brittain33, Demi Moaned

        first of all, what's happening in israel is not genocide. and the non-violent protesters are very much in the minority. i would like to believe that if they were the majority, the palestinians would have long ago had their own nation. but in the face of true genocide- sudan, rwanda, the balkans, etc.- non-violence would accomplish nothing. true, it would be better than doing nothing, but in such situations, there is, unfortunately, a need for a different something.

        © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

        by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:35:17 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  The protesters (0+ / 0-)

        of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank would be more effective if they could point to Palestinian protestors against Palestinian violence. In order to defuse the conflict, both sides will have to ease the other's fears by demonstrating the possibility of a nonviolent future.

    •  Gandhi and Hitler (7+ / 0-)

      Gandhi wrote to Hitler and you can find a record of that correspondence at

      Gandhi also wrote about how he would approach the Nazis if he were a German Jew, see

      I once asked Lawrence Langer, a scholar on the literature and history of the extermination camps, about this story.  He didn't believe it.  He didn't believe an SS officer would relent and stop committing murder because a woman held his sleeve and his gaze for a minute or so, maybe less, maybe more.

      I don't know.  I saw the interview on TV once and it hit me so hard I had to write it down.  I haven't been able to track down a tape or DVD of the show to confirm my memory or my notes.  Yet, the story still resonates with me, as do other stories from that time.  Like the many different versions of the story about the ballerina who danced out of the cattle cars and up to a Nazi soldier, grabbed his gun and shot him with it only to be shot herself.  Like the woman on the death march in the snow, resting against a tree and the Nazi sergeant who raised his rifle to shoot her as orders dictated, looked her in the eyes, and then lowered his rifle and walked away.

      It is that eye to eye contact which is the key here, I think.  I remember another story, this time in an obituary for a homeless advocate in the Village Voice.  The writer related how this guy was opposing the NYC cops in their riot gear as they busted up a homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park.  He grabbed a bathroom mirror from the trash and held it up to the cops and they stopped dead in their tracks, seeing themselves for once as others saw them.

      I don't know if Gandhi could have stopped Hitler.  I don't know if his non-violent tactics could have stopped the death camps.  I just know that we have to think of different ways to go about living and dying.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:33:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  i agree with the idealism (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Demi Moaned, jhritz

        but there are situations that need to be dealt with as they are. i've read about gandhi's take on wwii, and it's one of the rare examples where i think he was simply wrong. the example you wrote about was beautiful, and the type of thing that gives one hope for our species, but that officer was very much the exception. it's a great story. you never know where you'll find a glimmer of light.

        © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

        by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:38:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Situations As They Are (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Turkana, marykk, Demi Moaned

          There are an infinite number of ways to address "situations that need to be dealt with as they are."  I know that slaughter has an energy that can be both intoxicating and addictive, even if it is just breaking the necks of catfish in a slit trench for the fish fry or cutting the throats of chickens for a Sunday dinner.  I can imagine how much more powerful that feeling can get when you're killing somebody of the same species who is capable of fighting back.  

          Yet, I still believe in the possibility of peace, an active peace, an always precarious peace even in the face of war with a government, my government, which practices torture and indiscriminate killing for no good reason other than policy, money, and "image."

          This story, to  me, is not at all about idealism.  It is about a concrete, life and death reality.  It is about the other choice, the one we foreclose when we close our open hand into a fist.  It is about possibility.

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 11:00:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  i agree about peace (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            but i don't think we've yet evolved to where it can be universally applied. the holocaust was one example. darfur is another. i can't imagine the appeal of blood lust, but i'm not a hunter. but as long as people are willing to savagely murder other people, they must be stopped. sometimes, peaceful means simply won't work. i hope we will evolve to the point that we will all outgrow violence, but we're not there yet.

            © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

            by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 11:11:55 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  We Will Never Outgrow Violence (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              We have to learn how to deal with it, to restrain the violent without becoming violent ourselves.  Aikido is one way to approach this problem and takes a lifetime of practice.

              Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

              by gmoke on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 11:21:40 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  for the most part, i agree (0+ / 0-)

                except when directly confronted with violence. sometimes, it can be evaded, but sometimes it has to be met.

                © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

                by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 11:23:08 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Confronting Violence (0+ / 0-)

                  In aikido, you can confront violence without becoming violent yourself, Steven Seagal movies to the contrary.  The stated intention of Osensei Uyeshibi Morihei was to develop a martial art that stopped violence without doing violence, that protected the aggressor as well as the target of that aggression.  It is very, very hard to do and, again to the contrary, I am told, aikido was the martial art of choice for the Imperial Naval intelligence corps, noted for being the most vicious questioners/torturers of captured prisoners.

                  Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

                  by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:40:16 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

              •  Irene Opdyke's 'Into My Hands' (0+ / 0-)

                describes her WWII experience, saving a group of Jews, with the help of an SS officer. It's a riveting story. I couldn't put the book down.

                I suppose this points out how the media, propaganda, teen mania, etc. all are used by fascist governments to program people to set their consciences aside and submit to peer group pressure to obey/conform. But, assuming one had a childhood that permitted development of conscience, that conscience is still there, and can be encouraged to surface.

                I think the reason talk radio spews hate is to deaden us to love. Where there is love, conscience can be felt. Hatred and fear overpower conscience with the adrenalin of aggression and action. Keeping people angry and hateful at the designated scape goats relieves them of their socialization (mom's admonishment to 'play nice') and responsibility to respect others. It's the antithesis of the golden rule.

                Assuming we all crave love/nurturing, then it is that look in the eyes that can in some cases cut through the hate.

      •  The Meistersinger link (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        seems to be activating my anti-virus software. Not sure why. Just FYI.

    •  Gandhi in Nazi Germany (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Halcyon, Turkana, AmericanRiverCanyon

      He seemed to be a gentleman and she couldn't understand why he was in the SS.

      He had a conscience.

      The great historian Lacey Baldwin Smith in his book Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World argues that the reason Gandhi could be effective with the British was that they had a conscience. His corrolary was that (as you suggest) Gandhian techniques would have been futile in Nazi Germany.

    •  Primo Levi (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AllisonInSeattle, Turkana, Ice Blue

      Primo Levi wrote something that I felt was very telling about the randomness of violence at Auschwitz.  He went up to a guard who was known for killing any prisoner who asked a question and asked the question: "Why?"

      Did he do it because he wanted to die?  Or because his curiosity got the better of him.  We don't know.

      The guard's answer:

      "There is no why here."

      He didn't kill Primo Levi; but he didn't stop killing others.

      Non-violence is laudible under most circumstances, but there are times when it is not the answer.

      I would argue that the Warsaw uprising is an example of such a time.  The people who fought back knew they were going to go to the gas chambers if they didn't. They died anyway, but on their own terms, and news of their fight reached the world and emboldened others (particularly the Polish resistance) to foment an uprising of their own.

      Another example was the sabotage of the crematorium as presented so starkly and perfectly in Tim Blake Nelson's masterpiece, The Gray Zone.

      Should the sonderkommando have blown up the cermatorium and killed their guards?  They sacrificed their lives doing it, but they also cut the Nazi's ability to utilize their killing machine (gas+burning) by a significant percentage.

      And then there's the argument against Chamberlain's "peace in our time" appeasement, when challenging Hitler over Czechoslovakia may have contained him; or, if not, have put the allies in a better position to fight him before he was too strong -- and before the Holocaust had started.

      Sometimes fighting back against murderers is the moral thing; as strange as that sounds (note: that does not include targeting civilians with suicide bombs, etc, so, anyone so inclined to go there, don't).

      The goal is a world where that type of morality is not required.

    •  Gandhi had a *specific* plan for stopping Hitler (0+ / 0-)

      or a similar being who might seek to control a whole populace the way Hitler did, to destroy as many people as Hitler did.i

      Now I can already hear what you will say, "It wouldn't have stopped Hitler", because that's the position you want to stay vested in. Be my guest.

      But for others who're reading, Gandhi said this: If people had laid down, right where they were, when the SS came for them, the same numbers of people could not have been killed. Yes, they may have risked being shot on the spot. But the army didn't have the manpower to carry the sheer numbers of dead people to waiting transport, then take them somewhere, then bury them. They used slave labor to accomplish many of their goals, digging graves being just one, as this story shows, regarding other tasks.

      In addition, it would have alerted the residents around them, as they were being shot, and dragged out of their homes.

      Whether any group of humans on earth would ever have the courage to carry out his plan, that is another question. But it would most certainly have prevented slaughter on as wide a scale as happened.

      Be good to each other. It matters.[me] / John McCain

      by AllisonInSeattle on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 01:47:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  sorry (0+ / 0-)

        they were shot on the spot. they were dragged from their homes. and they were removed from mixed neighborhoods and stuck in ghettoes. everyone knew it was happening, because it was happening openly, in broad daylight!

        when people have dehumanized to that level- or the hutus in rwanda, to use an obvious recent example- lying down is not going to stop anything.

        © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

        by Laurence Lewis on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 07:47:56 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Lying Down Can Be Standing UP (0+ / 0-)

          Gandhi's point seems to be that if you are going to be killed anyway, you might as well do it on as much of your own terms as possible.  If the German Jews (and Gypsies and homosexuals and Communists and Socialists and other "undesirables") had been shot where they stood or sat or laid, they wouldn't have contributed to the Nazi war machine with their slave labor and helped continue the war, they wouldn't have made it easier for the Nazi goons and ghouls by digging their own graves,  they wouldn't have made it convenient by marching docilely into the death camps.

          Jewish Frontier, a New York magazine, riddled Gandhi’s proposal in March, 1939, and sent him a copy. He quoted at length from the attack. “I did not entertain the hope… that the Jews would be at once converted to my view,” Gandhi replied. “I should have been satisfied if even one Jew had been fully convinced and converted… It is highly probable that, as the [Jewish Frontier] writer says, ‘A Jewish Gandhi in Germany, should one arise, could function for about five minutes and would be promptly taken to the guillotine.’ But that does not disprove my case or shake my belief in the efficacy of non-violence. I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators… Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime… The method of violence gives no greater guarantee than that of non-violence…” Millions sacrifice themselves in war without any guarantee that the world will be better as a result or even that the enemy will be defeated. Yet who does not fiercely resent the suggestion that anybody die in deliberate non-violent sacrifice?

          I mentioned the subject to Gandhi in 1946 when Hitler was dead. “Hitler,” Gandhi said, “killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:49:32 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Little Town of Bethlehem (3+ / 2-)
    Recommended by:
    londonbear, AllisonInSeattle, Norbreacht
    Hidden by:
    dhonig, Turkana

    Heartbreaking photos.

    See my art at

    by Tigana on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:19:06 PM PST

    •  what does that have to do (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      palachia, word is bond, jhritz

      with this diary?

      © 2007 "certain thoughts are prayers. there are moments when, whatever the attitude of the body may be, the soul is on its knees." -victor hugo

      by Laurence Lewis on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:21:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Because it's still (4+ / 1-)


        See my art at

        by Tigana on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:25:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  This diary is about Auschwitz. (6+ / 1-)

          If I'm not mistaken, it seems like you're implying the builders of the wall are equivalent (godwin) to those who built Auschwitz.

          If that's the case, perhaps a bit of history about the founder of the Palestinian Nationalism Movement (yes, they have movement) is in order:

          Al-Husayni inspecting the Muslim Waffen SS troops he had recruited and one with a good buddy.

          From the wiki on him:

          Testimony presented at the Nuremberg trials, however, accused the Mufti of not only having knowledge about the holocaust but of also actively encouraging the initiation of extermination programs against European Jews. Adolf Eichmann's deputy Dieter Wisliceny testified during his war crimes trial in 1946 that ... "The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan... He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard him say, accompanied by Eichmann, he had visited incognito the gas chambers of Auschwitz."

          and this:

          November 2, 1943

          "To the Grand Mufti: The National Socialist movement of Greater Germany has, since its inception, inscribed upon its flag the fight against the world Jewry. It has therefore followed with particular sympathy the struggle of freedom-loving Arabs, especially in Palestine, against Jewish interlopers. In the recognition of this enemy and of the common struggle against it lies the firm foundation of the natural alliance that exists between the National Socialist Greater Germany and the freedom-loving Muslims of the whole world. In this spirit I am sending you on the anniversary of the infamous Balfour declaration my hearty greetings and wishes for the successful pursuit of your struggle until the final victory.

          Reichsfuehrer S.S. Heinrich Himmler"

          and this:

          Husayni aided the Axis cause in the Middle East by issuing a fatwa for a holy war against Britain in May 1941. The Mufti's widely heralded proclamation against Britain was declared in Iraq, where he was instrumental in "the pro-Nazi" Iraqi revolt of 1941

          And from his own words:

          In his memoirs after the war, Husayni noted that "Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world. I asked Hitler for an explicit undertaking to allow us to solve the Jewish problem in a manner befitting our national and racial aspirations and according to the scientific methods innovated by Germany in the handling of its Jews. The answer I got was: 'The Jews are yours.'"

          From Yassar Arafat:

          Arafat: We are not Afghanistan. We are the mighty people. Were they able to replace our hero Hajj Amin al-Husseini?... There were a number of attempts to get rid of Hajj Amin, whom they considered an ally of the Nazis. But even so, he lived in Cairo, and participated in the 1948 war, and I was one of his troops."

          And finally:

          The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry's report [...] says: "The flight of the Mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, to Italy and Germany, and his active support of the Axis, did not lose for him his following, and he is probably the most popular Arab leader in Palestine today."

          Now, whose ideology were you referring to?

          Your post was disrespectful to the victims of Aushwitz, to the concept of non-violence, and it did not take into account the history of the conflict you sought to conflate.

          So, if you're going to compare anyone to Auschwitz, I suggest you start with someone who was there (with Eichmann, watching the gas chambers in action).

          Otherwise, you might want to keep the issues separate, which is where they belong.

  •  I was about to say wonderful story. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AllisonInSeattle, Turkana, marykk

    Tragic moving story is more like it. There is nothing that was wonderful about what those people experienced and endured. Thanks for posting the diary.

  •  Non-Violence (4+ / 0-)

    I wanted to post this for MLKing Day but didn't have the video digitized and ready to be uploaded until today.  One of the reasons I wanted to do it for King is because in all the discussion of him on his day I didn't hear anybody mention non-violence.  That part of his legacy seems to have disappeared from public consciousness.  Now he's remembered as "I have a dream" and "a colorblind society" not as the inheritor of Gandhi and Tolstoy and Thoreau.

    I have also been curious about the rumors I've heard of US government advisers using non-violent techniques to help the Serbs throw out Milosevic and help the Ukrainians with their Orange Revolution.  I wonder about the uses of non-violent tactics as a form of subversion.  Certainly, that was part of the plan in Chile when my government helped overthrow Allende and part of the plan when my government tried to overthrow Chavez in Venezuela just a couple of years ago.  

    Non-violence can be used for tyranny as well as freedom it seems but, since we don't discuss non-violence, we don't actively recognize that possibility.  We should.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 10:46:23 PM PST

  •  Great diary! (0+ / 0-)

    Really amazing.

    I found it too late to recommend it, but have highlighted it in my what have you got to learn? (or teach) series.  I hope more people read it.

    Thank you.

    What are you reading? on Friday mornings
    What have you got to learn? (or teach) on Saturdays

    by plf515 on Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 06:08:54 AM PST

    •  Thanks for Reading (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And recommending it to others

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Sun Feb 11, 2007 at 09:00:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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