The Fawns of Auschwitz | Washington Monthly
Protruding from the ceiling like a barnacle, the anachronistic modern, white smoke alarm was the first thing I noticed when I entered a “decontamination room” at Auschwitz. Used to rid clothing of vermin, this was not the gas chambers but a precursor in a prisoner barracks where dozens of dry, wooden, Holocaust-era three-tiered bunks looked ready to become kindling. A haunting Prussian-blue stain around the disinfection area’s inner archway was a reminder of the Nazis’ use of the poison Zyklon-B to disinfect clothing—to kill lice and fleas—as well as to murder the arrivals themselves when the time was right. The Nazis, of course, saw the Jews as vermin, a word that Donald Trump managed to revive this month single-handedly.
As I considered this dehumanizing linkage with the cluster of Nazi structures in southern Poland, I was reminded of Ukraine, where I’ve been covering the war on and off since Russia invaded last year. Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine has dehumanized Ukrainians, portraying them as “inferior” and as “Nazis,” making it easier for the inculcated to kill them. While I was at Auschwitz, Israel’s defense minister called Hamas “human animals.”
Rendering the enemy as subhuman is as old as war, a time-tested way to motivate one’s troops and drain their compassion lest it stymie their fight. But nobody is less than human—a banal point, but one that got lost in the 20th century as Romanovs, Jews, Kulaks, Bosnians, Tutsis, Roma, Biafrans, and so many others were easier to kill if they were seen as vermin. Even today, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I’ve extensively reported, the dehumanization of Tutsis continues, the enduring byproduct of the Rwandan genocide. One regional expert told me that degrading language is not only being used on the ground in the African nation but also coming from what he called “the diaspora of hate.”
Those of us who choose not to wage war recognize and reject these dehumanizing terms, at least when we’re not thrust into the maw. But those who wage war continue to dehumanize their foes. Maybe they deny their enemy’s humanity, not only to motivate their forces but because of self-recognition: It’s not monsters, but men who commit war crimes.
In the 21st century, Israelis and Ukrainians find themselves fighting the last century’s battles against enemies who see them as vermin. And it goes both ways: There are Israelis who have called Palestinians “vermin.”
The smoke alarm was just one thing I saw at Auschwitz this autumn that created a juddering connection between past and present. Another was the sight of fawns expertly skipping through the complex maze of once-electrified barbed wire on the 346 acres that are the remains of the death camp.
On October 7, I was on my way to a journalism symposium at the concentration camp in Poland. The confluence of being en route to Auschwitz as Jews were slaughtered, raped, and dismembered in southern Israel loomed over my colleagues gathered at the camp. One of us had the grim duty of being sent to the Gazan war zone right after the Auschwitz gathering.
As the Middle East imploded, my colleagues and I—who have borne witness to bloodlettings from Bosnia to Syria—discussed the fog of war and how hard it can be to know who is “right” and who is “wrong” amid atrocities. In the remains of a Nazi concentration camp, the ghosts of perpetrators were present, but watching a contemporary conflict from afar and determining what are and are not war crimes is a difficult task. None of us is a long-distance Nuremberg judge. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped people who can’t find Gaza on a map from using social media to declare guilt or innocence.
War is rarely transparent. Look at what happened in the aftermath of the June collapse of the Kakhovka dam in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Ukrainian officials said the Russians had blown the dam from beneath the water, while Moscow blamed Kyiv. The International Criminal Court launched an investigation. Both sides had cause to let loose the waters: the Russians to drown their enemies, the Ukrainians to garner sympathy.
As journalists, it is our job to bear witness and, at our best, to explain what we’ve seen with our eyes or discovered through our interviews and research. Coming to Auschwitz in this disastrous time for Israelis and Palestinians gave me more than enough context for mass murder, a scourge from Ukraine to Syria to Myanmar to Mali to Yemen. But rendering verdicts amid war is hard, even when up close. At the Syrian-Turkish border several years ago, I heard and felt bombs exploding. Judging who had fired them was not something I could possibly know, even from that relatively close rib-shaking distance, let alone if I were at the scene. It takes forensic investigation to determine who, what, and how. Who had the resources? Who was hit? Who gained? Determining a war crime can be obvious, as it was when the Allies liberated the Nazi death camps. But in the throes of war, it can be harder. The Nazis tried to hide their horrors, using code words for murder and publicly showing “healthy” prisoners working in humane conditions.
After a couple of days of touring Auschwitz, where more than 1.1 million human beings, overwhelmingly Jewish, were killed, we walked a rocky path through quiet woods of birches and poplars to one of the four major gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Time slowed as I considered each rock beneath my feet. How many men, women, and children had stepped on them on their way to their murder? How many knew their death was at hand? Atop the brick remains of the killing factory, smooth gray stones rested—the honorific Jews leave to remember the dead.
As we headed toward the brick outline of the crematorium, my colleague, the one heading to Israel to report, stopped to examine a stone.
“A fossil,” he said.
It was not a metaphor but a tangible imprint of life from the distant past, reminding us that there is an expansive and uncertain future, perhaps as long as the past. What my colleague found was a reminder that we are only here for a nanosecond and must decide whether we’ll see one another as human and whether each day, we will work toward peace and bear witness—lest we end up butcher or butchered in a place like Auschwitz.