The long shadow of Auschwitz

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The long shadow of Auschwitz

It was hell itself. The Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, the site of the Holocaust and one of the most evil events in human history, is full of memories of that hell. The gateway to this hell bore the sign, “arbeit macht frei,” or “work sets you free.” Reminiscent of Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free,” the slogan was the Nazis’ lie to deceive Holocaust victims.

Among the Jews brought to the concentration camp, women, children, elderly and the disabled were killed within a week as they did not make a great workforce. The Nazi guards gave them soap and told them they were going to a shower to trick them into the gas chamber. The walls of the gas chamber had the scratches made by the victims as they were killed in excruciating pain. The green grass over the gas chamber is not enough to cover up the horrifying memories.

About 100 meters (328 feet) from the gas chamber stands the residence of Rudolf Hoess, the notorious camp commandant. While the Jewish prisoners were killed in the gas chamber, Hoess enjoyed dinners with his family. After the end of the war, he was executed at the gallows built next to the gas chamber. The high voltage fences, incinerators that burned the bodies of the victims, the bags, glasses and prosthetic legs left by the victims all tell the painful stories of the Holocaust.

German doctor Josef Mengele, who was called the “Angel of Death,” performed human experiments, including cutting the limbs off of twins and switching them to study their reactions. Parts of the victims’ bodies were recycled. Hair was used for pillow stuffing and carpets, gold-capped teeth were made into gold bars. Bones were ground and made into fertilizer. The Jewish prisoners had to sleep on pillows made of hair of other Jews who had been killed before them.

“What’s lost in the fire must be found in the ashes.” The Polish proverb reveals a strict awareness of history. You must not forget what’s been lost and you need to seek new hope from the ashes. It is wisdom applicable to our lives today, to help us find a way to recover from the pains of yesterday.

In 1979, Unesco designated the Auschwitz concentration camp a World Heritage Site, so that everyone would always remember that barbaric and inhumane chapter of the history.

Just like Korea, Poland suffered constant foreign invasions. Since the 13th century, Poland was invaded by Mongolia, Sweden, Prussia, Russia and Austria. In the 20th century, it was trampled by the Soviet Union and Germany. Its capital, Warsaw, was burned down five times. But every time, the Polish people resisted fiercely and rebuilt Warsaw from the ashes five times.

Poland has a special association with the piano. When the Russian military suppressed the Polish revolution in 1831, Frederic Chopin composed the Revolutionary Etude. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and the first prime minister of Poland, went to London when the Nazis occupied Poland and led the parliament in exile there. Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most acclaimed pianists of the 20th century, is a Polish Jew who refused to perform with conductor Herbert von Karajan because Karajan had collaborated with the Nazis. The Polish resistance spirit is imbedded in the music its composers created for the piano.

During World War II, imperial Japan also operated several forced labor camps, and one of them was operated by the Aso Mining Company, founded by the great grandfather of current Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. He is the one who shamelessly suggested Japan could learn from the Nazis about how to revise a constitution.

The Korean laborers who were forcibly taken to the mine had to work more than 17 hours a day, and about 200 died from beatings, starvation and illnesses. This is not based on Korean workers’ testimony. Japanese historian Yasuto Takeuchi documented the tragedy. But the Japanese government has not apologized for its abuse and these deaths.

The Holocaust and Auschwitz draw a long shadow over 70 years.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana’s aphorism is inscribed in English and Polish at the entrance of Building 4 in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Perhaps a Japanese translation should be added so that the distorted history of the extreme rightists in Japan can be properly exposed.

But what do we do about the concentration camps and re-education camps for political prisoners in North Korea? The living hell of torture, forcible abortions and public executions of Koreans draws a barbaric shadow right next to us.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, PC, and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.

By Lee Woo-keun

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