April 05, 2008

Faces of the SS

A New Yorker piece on recent find of an old photo album of SS officers at Auschwitz:

Over the Auschwitz album, like a gloss, clings a sense of a prideful observance of manners and customs, a tranquil and purified world, a shared purpose, a satisfaction in uniforms, boots, and accordions. Lives so exalted required trips to the hills, shot-guns and game hunting, companionable dogs, wine, and the presence of young women. "That the S.S. officers went on vacation didn't take us by surprise," Judith Cohen says. "What surprised us was that Auschwitz wasn't only a place to imprison men and women and kill European Jews; it was also a place to have fun."

The album's effect is discordant...What they have done is not written on their faces, but, even so, their faces are not especially sympathetic. They are the faces of hard men, who give the impression of being restricted in their capacities, their range of feeling. Hoecker's is the stray face among them which seems now and then to reflect charm, courtesy, and fellow-feeling.

* * *

Several people at the museum told me that the strangest thing about the album for them is that a person can look again and again at the images and never find an answer to the question "How could you have done what you did?" One thing that is particularly troubling is the presence of so many doctors and the pseudoscientific legitimacy that their participation lent to the selection process.
A couple things come to mind: one, a belief in Original Sin and in the presence of evil in the world makes us realize we are all capable of horrific evil, although I too would certainly look for the answer "How could you..." in the phots. But I think where the author betrays his naivety is his surprise that doctors - and by extension science - could be involved in a heinous deed, as if science can save us, and is if doctors aren't presently engaged in a mass killing involving a million babies each year.

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