(Alejandra Morales / The McGill Tribune)
I had gone out the night before, enjoying Krakow’s nightlife and the cheap vodka that came with it. With about three hours of sleep, I awoke to get on a bus for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the head extermination concentration camp from the Second World War.
Falling into a deep sleep on my way to the site, I woke up to a grey sky with steadily falling rain. The atmosphere was chilling. I stepped off the bus, greeted by a deathly silence that serenaded one of the most infamous locations of the Second World War. This was where the Nazis had tortured and exterminated over a million Jews, Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war. Around 6,000 Jews were killed in gas chambers everyday at the peak of the deportations.
This was not my first time at Auschwitz. When I was four years old, my parents brought me and my sister here, although I retain no memories from that trip. As I grew older and became fascinated by the history of the war, I begged my sister to describe what Auschwitz was like; what did she remember that I could not? She told me that one of the most disturbing images for her 9-year-old self was that of old, tattered children’s shoes that haunted the grounds of the camp.
From these selective memories, I pictured vivid brutality, thinking it would be visibly imprinted upon the structures that had housed atrocities. Perhaps there would be remnants of the creepy cells and dark dugouts which held the prisoners. Maybe blood smeared on the walls, left behind by those who had tried to escape.
It was nothing like I had imagined it would be. Instead, I saw neat rows of brick townhouses—almost resembling a boarding school. Only the signs indicating “Extermination House” on the entrances of various buildings betrayed its identity as a slaughterhouse.
But, as I continued ruminating on the terror that occurred over 70 years ago on the grounds I was walking on, I grew sick. The neat, symmetrical setting of Auschwitz-Birkenau was a reminder of the efficiency of the Nazis. The houses were built precisely to ensure that prisoners were accounted for, and that executions were effective.
I walked past a building with a massive chimney. According to a guide, prisoners detected a strange smell that emitted from the structure. That’s because it was a gas chamber, where millions of prisoners were burned into piles of ash. The smoke that emitted from the chimney over 70 years ago were the remnants of human flesh.
his tragedy begs the question: How was it possible that genocide was carried out for over three years in Auschwitz without intervention from the international community?
This is one of the ongoing controversies of the Second World War. According to the BBC, by mid-1944, the Allied countries were aware of the true nature of the concentration camps, yet Auschwitz was only liberated months later by the Red Army. During this period, thousands more were murdered.
Many say that the Allied powers should have acted against this genocide, perhaps by bombing the railway routes that brought prisoners to Auschwitz. Some historians dispute that a bombing could not have stopped the atrocities, while others claim that whatever the odds of success were, the Allies should have intervened earlier.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that for a long time, nothing was done to prevent or mitigate the horrors of Auschwitz. Turning a blind eye to atrocity and mass murders was and still is common. Just look at the 1937 Rape of Nanking, where the Japanese Imperial Army ravaged Nanking city during the Second World War and brutally murdered its inhabitants, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, where ethnic Hutu extremists savagely murdered the Tutsi minority.
Walking through Auschwitz, I cannot help but compare the setting of the camp to settings of these other massacres. What these acts all had in common was the dehumanization of enemies. The Japanese saw the Chinese as an inferior race, ranking them beneath dogs. Hutus who took part in the Rwandan genocide referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches. The Nazis referred to Jews as rats. While these atrocities may have been ordered or incited by vicious leaders in all but the former of these massacres were largely carried out by ordinary individuals: Neighbours, family friends, co-workers. Dehumanization allows for this. By virtue of non-interference in these massacres, leading countries such as the US, Britain, and France were also denying the humanity of the persecuted.
It is terrifying that large-scale massacres continue to occur today. Much of the world has seen the image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance covered in blood and dirt after he was rescued from a bombed building in Aleppo, Syria. The terrors in Aleppo have been ongoing for five years, and Omran is one amongst thousands of children who suffer terribly each day.
In August, around half of the 35 remaining doctors in Aleppo wrote a letter to Barack Obama pleading for intervention in light of the hospital bombardments by the Russian-backed Syrian air force.
“We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers: We desperately need a zone free from bombing over eastern Aleppo to stop the attacks, and international action to ensure Aleppo is never besieged again,” the doctors wrote.
Today, the city is still under siege, and world leaders merely present condemnations towards the perpetrators. But what do these words mean, when those in Aleppo cannot hear them above the continued bombing, gassing, starvation, and murder in the city?
Auschwitz has taught us that the culture of non-interventionism leads to an astounding loss of life and leaves a stain on the countries that choose not to intervene. It also exemplifies the theme of denial that commonly follows crimes of massacres. After the victory of the Allies, the Nazis scrambled to hide evidence of their war crimes to ensure that they would not be held accountable by the international community—mass graves were dug and thousands of prisoners were killed because they had witnessed Nazi brutalities.
The Allies failed to liberate Auschwitz before it was too late. Yet when it came to ensuring that Germany paid for its actions, the international community sought justice for the wronged. After the end of war, countries collectively pursued uncovering the full extent of German war crimes to make sure that Germany apologized to its victims and paid proper reparations. Survivors stepped forward to attest to the horrors committed by the Nazis, and evidence was recovered to further confirm the horrific actions of Germany.
Since the end of the war, any remaining Nazis are hunted and prosecuted. This form of justice that occurred in the aftermath of a genocide would not have been possible without the collective actions of the world.
Numerous massacres have occurred elsewhere. In addressing other conflict crimes, such as those committed by Japan in the Second World War, world leaders did not equally serve justice to victims who suffered comparable terror.
For instance, German war criminals were persecuted and tried in the International Criminal Court; in contrast, Emperor Hirohito, the head of the military and government of Japan during the war, was set free. In 2013, Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates those who died during the Second World War, including soldiers, civillians, and convicted war criminals.. To put this in perspective: Envision German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting a Nazi war shrine—such an act would receive worldwide condemnation.
Germans are taught about the horrific actions of the Nazis with an emphasis on preventing any atrocities of the same kind in the future, and education curriculums around the world teach youth about the Nazi crimes. Yet Japan’s Abe administration still tries to deny the very existence of the country’s crimes in the Second World War. High school textbooks are stripped of history regarding horrendous Japanese war conduct, including the Nanking Massacre and the ‘comfort women’ system, where thousands of women were captured and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. It’s not surprising that many young people in Japan are not aware of the atrocities committed by their country during the Second World War.
With Japan’s refusal to cooperate in reconciliation and compensation, 15 victims from Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, who suffered in the comfort women system, filed a class-action lawsuit against Japan in the US District Court in 2000. They used the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1787, which provides an opportunity for prosecution of Japanese military and government participants in the sexual slavery system. Instead of responding to the injustice of the comfort women system, the US government sought a formal request to dismiss the case, invoking Japan’s “sovereign immunity.” Contrast this to the US response regarding reconciliation of Nazi crimes: The Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in the US continues to actively address any remaining issues from the war.
The contrast between US actions in addressing German and Japanese war crimes is shocking. Likewise, other world leaders have also failed to hold Japan accountable. There is blatant discrimination regarding which victims deserve justice and which criminals deserve punishment. Yet victims of war crimes suffer similar tragedies and deserve equal justice. Just as millions of people across Europe were hunted by the Nazis, a comparable amount of people across Asia were massacred by the Japanese Imperial Army—where is the justice for them?
As I walked through Auschwitz, I was reminded of the horrific terrors that occurred within its confines and elsewhere by Nazi Germany. I am saddened for those who remain haunted by what occurred. I am frustrated that nothing was done or attempted, to relieve the prisoners of their suffering.
Today, I see ongoing reports of destruction and death in Aleppo. Former comfort women who have only a few years to live continue to seek acknowledgement of the pain that they felt decades ago.
I am Chinese-Canadian, and, like many others, my culture was affected by war. I have witnessed the consequences of inaction: Generations of Chinese continue to resent the Japanese for actions committed over 70 years ago. This hatred towards the war’s injustices deeply scars the nation, and threatens the current and future relationship between China and Japan. Reconciliation is impossible without justice; war crimes must be acknowledged and compensated for, and perpetrators must be held accountable.
Politicians and leaders pick and choose which conflicts to involve themselves in, and which ones to idly stand by on without interference. The actions—and inactions—of politicians in response to terror illustrates that world leaders believe some human lives are worth more than others. It also shows that, for all the blood and terror our ancestors went through in past wars, there is violence and death awaiting us now, and in the future.
Leaders of the world: Relieve the 2 million trapped in Aleppo. Do more to hold Japan accountable for its war crimes so they can properly reconcile with the countries they have unleashed their aggression upon.
Citizens of the world: Demand action from your governments. Many of us have the gift of democracy, which grants us the right to free speech—something that individuals in war-stricken areas are deprived of. We can and must use this freedom to make a change—whether it be on a local or global scale.
Conflict motives vary, but the constant in the spoils of war is the loss of human lives. Leaders talk of the borders of state sovereignty, simultaneously constructing boundaries on who lives and who dies. States are provided equal status politically; the value of human life is not.
Action is required to address remaining injustices of war. It may not guarantee success, but at the very least, it demonstrates a world order where there are no borders of humanity.