I sometimes think about those first few Allied troops who stumbled upon the death camps that Nazi Germany had infected Europe with and the obscene spectacle they had to behold and absorb while trying to help the poor ragged souls who were somehow still alive.
As we bear witness to stomach-twisting sights of sadism in Ukraine, remembering the horrors of the Holocaust and the liberation of those camps in April, 1945 seems especially crucial.
For these hardened soldiers, who saw, endured, and in some cases inflicted horrors few of us can imagine, this sight was beyond even their capacity to comprehend human cruelty.
I would think the most awful moment that day was when the soldiers happily started handing out food as swiftly as they could to people who had been starved beyond the point of imagination. The soldiers must have allowed themselves an iota of pride as they nourished people who must have appeared all but drained of anything human. For the skeletal survivors, despite holding the food in their disbelieving hands, this must have felt beyond the scope of their imaginations.
The measure of gratitude both must have felt. At being able to eat, and being able to feed.
But then, almost immediately, the soldiers were ordered to take it all back from the newly liberated prisoners. Allied doctors knew these survivors of what would become known as the Holocaust, or Shoah, would die in agony if they ingested solid food in any large amount.
They would have to be slowly reintroduced to nourishment. They weren’t yet ready to rejoin the habits of the living.
To the confused recipients, given bread only to have it wrenched away a minute later, it must have seemed as cruel a psychological trick as anything the Nazis inflicted. And for the soldiers taking the food back, prying it from hands so skeletal and weak that their resistance must have felt unbearably sad. It may have even made them feel complicit in the evil they had found.
This was hardly the greatest cruelty these prisoners had to endure, of course, but something about that story affects me quite deeply. Perhaps because this historical snapshot takes the Holocaust – an event of such sweeping and sadistic barbarity that it will forever be impossible to fully wrap our heads around – and manages to make the enormity of it personal and human-sized.
Or maybe, it is because there are acts of unreasoning hatred and violence so stark in this world, even its healing demands a brutal patience that’s almost as cruel.