The View from Buchenwald

for The Monthly, Australia, 2013

A gaunt man stood inside the wire caging of a Buchenwald compound, in prisoners’ striped pantalon and jacket, hair cropped to baldness, maybe in his twenties but seeming immeasurably old. A section of wire fence lay open, torn down by an American tank. From behind him prisoners ran to spill through, waving, shouting, some falling, spent with the effort. All were stick-figures, withered, faces the shape of the skull beneath.

The still man seemed to be watching, with nothing as human as fear or joy in his eyes, he was vacant, whatever had happened to him, or to others around him, had so damaged his humanness as to extinguish his need for reaction to anything the present held for him.

The camera moved inside the stockade leaving him behind. My mother and I, inside a Melbourne Movietone News theaterette in April 1945, carried on along the paths between buildings, through dormitories of endless sleeping-benches where those too weak to rise made their effort to smile and wave, into the crematoriums, over the burial pits stacked with crowds of naked cadavers, more piled onto the trays of parked lorries, all with teeth exposed as if the horrors of their deaths could only be met with mad laughter.

When the lights came up my mother stubbed out her cigarette. She wanted to sit awhile. She held my arm. My father was in the war somewhere to our north. I was ten. She trembled, and tears streaked her cheeks. She will have heard radio reports of the discovery of Buchenwald from the BBC or Ed Morrow from the USA repeats, and determined I should watch this. Newsreels were our most vivid news service. They ran an hour, repeated hour by hour, delivered to our cities four or five days after printing in London or Paris.

She wore a brimmed bonnet pulled down to her eyes as if wishing not to be recognized. ‘You see?’ she said, ‘You see?’ Yes, here was my lesson: some people of the European world would visit these terrors on others who were Jews, or coloured, or gypsy. She was a Polynesian lass so we were coloured, and vulnerable to this.

Today, a search of the concentration camp websites shows several denialist publications. The word ‘Holohoax’ is a favourite. Of the most forthright, one is published by ‘White Pride Worldwide,’ another by journalist Carolyn Yeager of ‘The White Network’ USA whose thesis is that all Buchenwald footage was faked on the orders of Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley to justify US entry into the European War Theatre. Yeager attacks survivor Elie Wiesel as a liar and trickster who was never at Buchenwald.

During 1987, a year after his Nobel prize, Elie Wiesel spoke at the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne. That evening Penguin Books hosted a small dinner for him and his wife Marion in a private room at Mietta’s. Penguin folk were there, alongside Louise Adler now of Melbourne University Press with actor Max Gillies, and me. Elie Wiesel was a lean man with a triangular face quite like his purported young face in Holocaust photos, quiet and thoughtful, lacking any mannerisms I could think of as tricksterly. What deep hatreds would cause men to denounce him in the street, or cause the assailant Eric Hunt to assault him in a San Francisco hotel?

At university in the 1960s I encountered my first Holocaust denialist, John Bennett, who enjoyed the fuss made by his pieces in the student journal. Denialism had been slow to follow WW2. Was this because many of us had viewed the first Movietone News reports in April 1945?

When the Movietone lights began to dim my mother watched me, the better to judge how well I had learned the lesson. Her mouth was firm, of a breadth which stretched a smile wide in happier times. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘we should watch it once more.’