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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 80s, read it publicly in the early 90s, and produced a video version of the piece that was cablecast locally and exhibited in a museum show on courage in NY.

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,
for a moment,
        for a breath,
        for ourselves.

previously published at


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Comment Preferences

  •  I have been to the holocaust museum in D.C. (7+ / 0-)

    I have been to the killing fields in Cambodia.  I have served in the Army in Vietnam.  I often wonder what I would do if I was in an SS uniform and in that cellar.  It frightens me.  How many among us would willingly pick up the belt?

    If we really want to straighten out all this crap we really need to think about shit - Holy Shit.

    by John Crapper on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 08:54:00 PM PST

  •  I have read several books on this nightmare (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, gmoke, Xapulin, davis90, mookins, tobendaro

    In the last couple of months. I lost count how many, actually.

    It's almost hard to fathom how this managed to happen. The numbers are so huge, the stories so heart-rending, beyond words.

    How was this possible? The perfect storm of human depravity.

    Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.
    ~ Jerry Garcia

    by DeadHead on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 09:06:44 PM PST

    •  I've Seen Camp Arm Tattoos, and I'm Less Jewish (6+ / 0-)

      than Liam Neeson. The tattooed people talked like people I've seen or studied from survival crises at sea, or war combat survival conditions.

      Whatever all contributed to it, it sure as hell must have happened if someone as far removed as I am could run into original evidence as early in life as I did.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 09:24:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Marion Wollstein's father had the tattoos. (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        DeadHead, mookins, gmoke, Larsstephens

        She was my playmate. I saw them when I was about 6 or 7.  I did not know what they were until years later.

        I used to be Snow White. And then I drifted. - Mae West

        by CherryTheTart on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 10:57:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I was more oblivious to it than (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I'd like to admit, for much longer than I should have been.

        I've been making up for lost time.

        It's profoundly disturbing, but reading of it is nothing compared to those who actually suffered through it.

        It's something that has to be remembered.

        Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.
        ~ Jerry Garcia

        by DeadHead on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 11:24:11 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Holocaust was not a topic (0+ / 0-)

          of conversation anywhere. This is because the Jews didn't want to use the survivors, to exploit them and to make them go through hearing about and remembering  more than they wanted. Arabs make martyrs and heros of their war dead; Jews want to protect them and their survivors.

          Germans, and many others, (US, Great Britain, France, Poland, & etc.) were keen to put behind them their actions and not face up to their guilt. We still haven't done so about our, US's guilt

          I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

          by samddobermann on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 07:57:19 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Still Going On (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, Xapulin, davis90, DeadHead, tobendaro

    People are still picking up that belt every day all around the world.  I wonder if there are others holding onto their sleeves and looking into their eyes until they promise to stop.

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

    by gmoke on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 09:46:44 PM PST

  •  There are so many questions that these atrocities (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    should cause us to reflect on daily. Recognizing that not many of us would be heros. Wondering how many of us would become monsters. Most importantly perhaps is knowing that we never want to have to learn that about ourselves and have to be vigilant to make sure it never happens again. Which means stopping repression all the time--even when it's people that we don't like and that aren't like us. This past election felt so important to me in that respect. Mainly because a victory for one side would have been an affirmation that racial hate is a winning strategy.

    "Speak the TRUTH, even if your voice shakes."

    by stellaluna on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 04:11:50 AM PST

  •  Take the beauty, reject the crazy. (0+ / 0-)

    This is crazy:

    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."

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 04:44:28 AM PST


      Aldus Shrugged : The Antidote to Ayn Rand. Tear Ayn, the GOP, and Fox News new orifices; laugh and enjoy. @floydbluealdus1

      by Floyd Blue on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 05:11:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Crazy (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Gandhi's recorded nonviolent recommendation to German Jews was mass public suicide.  There is actual precedent for this in the Medieval pogroms where at least one ghetto's worth of Jews committed mass suicide before they could be slaughtered by Christians.

      There is precedence for the soft restraint of which this story is an example in other instances, as in Terry Dobson's encounter on a Tokyo subway, famous in the aikido and martial arts community.

      Whether either mass suicide or soft restraint would have worked on a man like Hitler is debatable but, to my knowledge, neither was tried.

      That is what I believe is crazy.

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

      by gmoke on Mon Nov 19, 2012 at 08:27:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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