Sometimes I come across a story too good not to share. How Mahler’s Tenth Symphony Helped Me Handle A Visit To Auschwitz by Henry Scanlon is one such article.
I spent a day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, then returned to my wife’s family home in Luxembourg, thinking I would move on. But I couldn’t move on, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the hooks. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the hooks, and the moment they knew.
They were told to be sure to remember the number of the hook on which they left their clothes so they could retrieve them after they were showered and de-liced.
You see, they gave the prisoners hooks on which to hang their clothes. They were small hooks, everyday hooks, on the walls of the basement corridor, a cramped, unpleasant corridor for disrobing, which they would do, humiliated. They did this together, men, women, and children, strangers and the opposite of strangers, and each hook had a number. They were told to be sure to remember the number of the hook on which they left their clothes so they could retrieve them after they were showered and de-liced.
This, too: As you look at the remnants of the changing room, down at the end, on the left, adjoining this room and perpendicular to it, of similar size, is the “shower” room, long and narrow. It was also underground, originally, and has no ceiling now, just the foundational remains and parts of the walls, enough so you can visualize it and get a sense of its dimensions, its size.
As you look at this, you say to yourself that this room, this “shower room,” would be crowded if there were 100 people in it—but you know that as the pellets were dropped, there were not 100 people in this room, there were 1,500, naked, frightened, degraded, humiliated, but still hopeful, because, after all, they needed to remember the number of their hook so they could retrieve their clothes.
Then, of course, there came a moment, and that’s the moment I can’t get out of my thoughts. The pellets began to hiss, and there was no water. Then they knew they were being murdered. I keep thinking that of all those people there must have been one or two or maybe a lot, as it started to happen, who thought of those hooks and said to themselves that this cannot be—they told us to remember the number of the hooks. The hooks told them there was to be a future, some kind of future.
By telling them to remember the number they were giving them hope, a belief that once they survived the mortification of mass nakedness, the degradation of this particular moment, they would live to see future moments, moments that might be difficult to endure, but at least there would be those moments, and maybe their children would survive this shower and this day. The hooks told them there was to be a future, some kind of future.
But, of course, the hooks were a lie, a ruse to allay panic, and those who told them this lie knew full well that there was no hope at that point, no future at all, excepting a brief one that would seem to last an eternity, the 15 or 20 minutes it would take them to die painfully from the Zyklon B pellets dropped on them as the final indignity.
They realized this tale of the hooks was the last lie, and maybe the very cruelest one of all, beyond even the physical cruelty and the intentional humiliation, because maybe, really, that is the one truly unforgivable thing, to give a desperate person hope when you know there is none, and the reason you do so is for your own convenience.
You can read the entire article (which I encourage you to do) here.