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Voices from the Holocaust.

Visitors to the Holocaust Museum that opened in April in Washington enter by walking into a large, dark elevator. On the ride up to the fourth floor, recorded voices of soldiers who liberated a concentration camp describe what they discovered. Then the elevator doors slide open and you're faced with a wall-sized photograph of a barracks full of dead bodies.

Instead of merely describing the Holocaust, this museum brings people into the experience of it. Voices from the Holocaust, edited by Harry James Cargas, does in book form what the museum does through a variety of media: invites readers into the terrible drama of the Holocaust through interviews with people who experienced it from several vantage points. The observations are hauntingly timely.

Cargas, renowned Catholic student of the Holocaust, has put together 12 interviews (most conducted during the 1980s) with concentration camp survivors and with others otherwise involved in the Holocaust. What emerges, in spite of their datedness, are a series of powerfully relevant reflections on the nature of humanity, inhumanity and justice.

For example, Czechoslovakian writer Arnost Lustig recalls what it was like at the age of 17 to watch his father being murdered at Auschwitz. His observation: The greatest crime of the Nazis was that they killed the Jews. But the next crime, almost as bad, was that they humiliated Jews before they killed them. They wanted them to accept before dying that they were inferior. It is impossible to communicate the humiliation. It kills.

Whitney Harris, a military lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, talks about his interview with Nazi officer Rudolf Hess. During their interview, Hess nonchalantly signed an affidavit admitting that he had been personally involved in the slaughter of 2.5 million people at Auschwitz. I think he was the greatest mass killer of all time.

Hess had the appearance of a clerk. He was not an impressive individual. He wasn't particularly aggressive. He had, of course, spent his lifetime in the concentration camp business. That was his career.

Harris goes on to tell how Hess was promoted within the ranks of the Third Reich. Hess discovered that Zyklon B killed people much more quickly than carbon monoxide gas, which had been used until then. He found a more efficient way to kill people. He was good at his job.

Leon Wells, a physician who was captured and forced to dispose of bodies at the camp, considers the miracle that some people risked their lives to hide and rescue people who were targets of the Nazis. He speaks of the Kalwinskis, a family who hid him for some time in Poland: "Next to us a household (caught hiding Jews) was executed. Very few people analyzed the situation, what it meant to save somebody and risk their lives. ... People don't realize what it meant to hide somebody, to sacrifice. I ask audiences continuously, |How many of you would have risked your lives to save a stranger?"

The questions raised are troubling because they we contemporary. While reading this book, a man with whom I work was laid off from his job. He is Yugoslavian, living in the United States on a limited work visa. Now he will have to return to Yugoslavia. On his last day of work, he told me how frightened he was to go back to a country in the middle of a vicious civil war. I felt an urge to try to help him, to do something. But I couldn't even think of something comforting to say, so I said goodbye.

"How many of you would risk your lives to save a stranger?" Risk my life? I couldn't even risk expressing some simple sentiment. Whitney Harris' description of Rudolf Hess is chilling, I think, because it suggests that it is ordinary people who can, by their cooperation with the system, commit extraordinary crimes.

This is a troubling thought in an age where we watch our contemporaries beat motorists senseless, just doing their jobs, and where a minister can persuade his followers to stockpile guns and shoot down federal agents to advance their cause.

Nuremberg dismantled the "I was just following orders" defense and held the followers of orders responsible along with those who gave the orders to kill. Since this is the case, we all must be careful whom we follow.

These interviews remind us that whether it is the banality of evil or the evil of banality that turns clerks into killers, we also must be careful about what we allow ourselves to become in order to comfortably belong to our jobs, clubs, churches and nations.

Voices from the Holocaust is timely because it comes as the Holocaust Museum opens. More important the book comes as the specter of concentration camps, to everyone's shame, rises again.

If the book has a fault, it is that it holds no references to the Balkan crisis. But it raises the right question for any such crisis: "Would you risk your life to save a stranger?"
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Author:Peatman, Bill
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 21, 1993
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