Luxuries of sickness

| May 16, 2012 | 3 Replies

Ever since I heard the detailed story of holocaust survivor Ben Fainer, I’ve been haunted by Ben’s story.  His video interview is about an hour long and it is riveting.

I was sick for most of the past four days, including two days on which I barely crawled out of bed. I had a fever, my muscles ached, I had chest congestion and migraine headaches and I couldn’t think straight. I’m better now, but while I was at my sickest, I wondered how Ben survived Nazi concentration camps for six years, even through the sicknesses that people periodically experience, especially when they were in the process of being starved. Ben just happened to call me yesterday (on another matter), and I took the opportunity to ask him: What would happen at Buchenwald if a prisoner was so sick that he was unable to report for work duty on even one occasion.

Ben answered:

“The system was simple. If you didn’t report for work, several people would go inside the barracks to pick you up, and they would walk you over to the crematorium oven, which was burning 24 hours a day. Even if you were still alive, they would throw you into the oven. I saw this happen and I heard the screams.”

I still can’t conceive of how a young boy could have survived this horror, even as he aged into a teenager during his six years of captivity.  And I’m so very lucky to live in a situation where sickness is usually not life-threatening, either biologically or socially.

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Category: Health, History, Medicine

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Tony says:

    I once participated in a guided tour in Buchenwald. The guide was probably the most versed you can find and it did really get to me.

    At that time I had problems with depression and was a bit suicidal. So hearing the stories made me think that I would not have survived back then, I would have given up. The perverse thing was that the guards did not allow for a quick death. There was was an electric fence and people would try to “go into the fence”. But the guards didn’t like that, because they would have to switch off the voltage and guard the fence while the dead person was being removed. So they tried to shoot anybody trying to get to the fence. But they tried not to kill them right away, so they could punish the person in addition to the other inmates. While a concentration camp like Buchenwald was about extracting labour for the german industry and killing the inmates, it was as much about punishing the people before killing them. The industry even complained that under these circumstances the quality of the work is low.

    The awful thing was, when the west german federal police BKA was founded after the war, almost all manager in higher positions were former SS generals – the same SS that was using the concentration camps as schools for their trainees on how to treat jews and communists. It was a similar situation in all areas of life in west germany. Fascists judges worked again, doctors worked again, with only a “Persil-Schein” declaring that they had nothing to do with the past.

    Ernst Thälmann, the pre-war head of the german communists, was shot in Buchenwald, right at the crematorium and his body burned right away. Some decades after the war, his daughter managed to get his murderer to be trialed in the west (with help from the east german communists). The evidence was rather good. But the judge ruled that Thälmann knew that he might get killed. The law said one of the distinctions between murder and manslaughter was the victim needed to be “unknowning”. So the judge ruled that it was manslaughter – and it had passed the statute of limitations, which was 20 years for manslaughter and indefinite for murder…

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: Thank you for your information. It is distressing to think that educated human beings are capable of such conduct, and that is the deep lesson for me. That “civilization” appears to be a thin and fragile veneer. It is not, like many people seem to believe, an automatically enduring fact.

    • Tony says:

      I think the underlying mechanism is when the perception of a “us against them” situation is created, that there is a “them”, that “they” are different, dangerous, and so on. Civilization consists in the understand to not allow humans to be divided in different groups.

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