The manual for human suffering

Gwyneth B. Howard

July 14, 1993|By Gwyneth B. Howard

AND there were the death showers! Like it was amazing, man! Look, here's a picture of me standing in one of them. We even stayed in one of Hitler's houses!"

That from one of my students, after he'd "toured" the German concentration camps with his father.

Death camp as theme park.

It is one thing to witness the poetry of suffering on the evening news or even in the movies fictionalizing Hitler's dark vision. It is another to see the "real" images as they are revealed in "Night & Fog," the award-winning 1955 film directed by Alain Resnais that marries footage taken by the Nazi propagandists to footage taken of the concentration camps as they appeared immediately after the Allied "liberation" at the end of the war.

The current slaughter-of-the-innocents in the former Yugoslavia, and in the fictionalized accounts of the Nazi death camps do not even begin to examine the advanced technology that was put in place in the concentration camps, seemingly not only as a solution to an immediate problem but with long-term implications as well.

As the planners determined, each death camp had an architecture. There was a camp created in the "Swiss Alpine" style, another in the Gothic style, another in the Bauhaus style.

And each had complete design integrity reflected in its town hall, its red-light district, its blue-collar area, prison, hospital. These were planned communities.

And the fact of the planning suggests that the "solution" was not a short-term one. The camps were not intended to exterminate "just" the Jews, the Gypsies, the unlucky of the moment, but had a scheme more grand. Long-term planning is evident. The cameras of Hitler's propagandists pan the long orderly lines of deportees awaiting transportation; they show the view from the camps, suggesting that every community could have one and yet remain picturesque.

There was a commodity to be processed, after all, and a facility in place to process it efficiently. Industrial icons Krupp and Siemens, among others, sent in new products for testing on the "volunteers."

But it is not part of the poetry of human suffering, this warehousing of product. It is almost impossible to imagine the mountain of women's hair that we see waiting to be loomed into bolts of cloth, the vats of bodies waiting to be rendered into fat, the bones that were turned into plant fertilizer, the human skin that was to be decorated like parchment and intended as a tourist souvenir. There was so much commodity that it appears ludicrous, even as it is on display coldly, factually, in Resnais' film.

The concept behind the stockpiles of raw material is a monument not to the acts of brutality we still see nightly beamed by satellite from Bosnia or Palestine, India or Somalia, but evidence of a technological vision: a way of converting excess into profit with a minimum of expense.

I witnessed the practical side of this experiment recently when I stayed overnight in a fine old hotel, the King of Hungary, in Vienna, Austria. It had been refurbished in the Imperial style, and freshly applied gold leaf framed the plump gods and goddesses disporting themselves on the ceilings. Even the beds were pseudo-Imperial and plump with eiderdown. All the bedrooms were in the grand style, appointed with chandeliers, Cupids and rich draperies.

"Observe the curtains," the desk clerk told me with a sly wink as I signed in. " . . . they are historical."

There were two sets of curtains at the windows in my room, one an elaborate lace against the glass, the other massive drapes. Winter curtains, they are called, designed to keep out drafts on chilly mornings. These were drab green and very heavy.

Only when I touched them did I feel the protruding wisps, blond when the light hit them.

"Are they really made from what I think they are?" I asked the clerk the following morning.

"Yes," he said, and nodded significantly.

Neither of us had to name the material.

"The cloth wears like iron," he told me gravely. "The tourists like to know it's there."

Gwyneth B. Howard writes from Darlington.

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