A duty to humanity

Posted: April 09, 2013

By Marina Gottlieb Sarles

As a German novelist who has spent the last five years steeped in Holocaust and World War II research, I shuddered while reading a recent story pointing to the vastly underestimated numbers of ghettos and camps throughout Europe.

On Holocaust Awareness Day, it is difficult to grasp the horrific total numbers of camps, including 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; and 980 concentration camps. Yet I believe we have an additional responsibility: to imagine the daily lives of men, women, and children only glimpsed at in personal prisoner files, medical reports, and death certificates.

A few years ago, I traveled with my Jewish husband to Stutthof, the death camp in my ancestral homeland of East Prussia, now Poland. No nationality was spared in Stutthof: Poles, Germans, Latvians, Belgians, Russians, Danes, Czechs, Lithuanians, and many others. Among these nationalities were thousands of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Gentiles - men, women, children, infants.

Stutthof was also a place for political prisoners like the family of Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Hitler. They were hung on the gallows near the far end of the camp.

I believe we should also remember those Germans who attempted to inquire about and advocate for relocated friends and those labeled "asocials." My grandfather was one such East Prussian, deeply concerned about a Roma friend who had disappeared. In the tyrannical language of a lunatic military psychology, he was threatened with death if he ever again attempted to associate with "asocials." He later learned that his friend was among the 1.5 million Romani (often called Gypsies) murdered from 1935 to the end of the war in what has been termed "The Forgotten Holocaust."

In Stutthof, there were eventually so many bodies that the crematorium could not handle the daily amount of corpses. Our tour guide told us that babies were born in Stutthof. Mothers and female inmates hid them, but they were soon found out and the babies were taken away and shot or left to die in the snow. I saw a room where shoe soles, not shoes but shoe soles, are piled to the ceiling, tiny shoe soles too, once worn by babies and toddlers.

At one point on the tour, I stood before a huge glass enclosure behind which the bones and ashes from a crematorium were kept.

Our tour guide came to stand beside me and I turned to look at her, struggling to speak. "You are contributing a huge piece of healing here by your willingness to tell the truth over and over again no matter how painful," I finally said.

"Thank you," she nodded. "I do it because I feel I have a duty to humanity, to my fellow human beings. The people who died here are all heroes. They must be remembered."

Marina Gottlieb Sarles is the author of "The Last Daughter of Prussia (Wild River Books).

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