The news of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum made me remember my first encounter with the horrors of that period in human history. It's an experience I can never forget.
It was 60 years ago. I was a young student traveling through Europe. I took a train south from Warsaw to Krakow and then to the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp where millions had been gassed to death.
Over the gates in huge letters were the words: "Arbeit Macht Frei," which means "Work Makes You Free." It was the Nazi method of educating the inmates -- Jews, Christian Poles, Ukrainians, gays and people of many other origins -- about their duties. Many were put into work gangs until they were so worn out they were considered useless and then they were liquidated in the gas chambers.
Inside the gates, everything had been left intact by the new Polish government as a monument to the millions who died here. There were the barracks buildings where many lived until they were gassed to death, the gas chambers, the ovens in which bodies were burned. One building had mountains of hair shaved off the heads of the corpses before they were incinerated. The hair was shipped back to Germany to be made into mattresses, I was told, as shortages of many products made it difficult for the German economy. In the ovens there were still the remains of fires that burned there and ashes of bodies consumed there. When the Russians liberated this camp, the process of shipping things back to Germany was interrupted -- and that's why these relics of the death factory remained.
During the European war I had served as a naval officer on a small ship in the Pacific. We knew nothing of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In the last days of the war, when various death camps were liberated, the world first learned of the Nazi war crimes.
When I toured the camp and saw the human hair, the suitcases that many people about to be killed had carried pathetically off the death trains, the piles of shoes worn by the victims until they were told to undress and ordered into the gas chambers -- I was angry.
A former inmate acted as my guide. He told me that, near the end of the war, the ovens got too full. So, many bodies were burned in ditches. He said that there were many bodies in the ground beneath us, part of this bumper crop of corpses reaped in the war's last days. I knelt beside him on the frozen ground. We dug together -- and soon I had pulled out a few chips of bone. Then we went into a nearby building and I found some hair that had been shaved off a woman. It still smelled faintly of gas. I also took a baby's shoe. I stuffed all of these "souvenirs" into a paper bag.
Then I returned to my base in Germany, the press hotel in Frankfurt. Still filled with anger, I dumped the contents of the bag on the reception desk. The man behind the desk was an ex-Luftwaffe officer, about my age. He looked at me calmly and said: "We didn't know about these things." Like a crazed missionary, I approached several other Germans outside the hotel and got the same answer. But, later, when I went to my room, I found an elderly lady who was cleaning the room. I dumped the contents of the bag on the bed. She knew immediately what these things represented and she burst into tears. I gathered up the relics and put them away for good.
When i wrote to my mother about what had happened, she wrote back: "I'm not worried about what your hatred of the Germans will do to them. I am afraid of what it can do to you."
Many years have passed. Later German generations, I have found, are more sensitive to the Holocaust than that immediate postwar generation. The German governments have built monuments to the Jewish population that was wiped out. The conscience, the morality of the German people is strong. Except for a few fringe groups, anti-semitism seems to have disappeared.
James von Brunn was infected by the anti-semitic virus, and for years, his wife pointed out, he ranted against blacks and Jews. Then, his hatred boiled over and he entered the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, killing a valiant security guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns.
Von Brunn wasted his life and took another. In the end, he accomplished nothing. Hatred, as my late mother pointed out, destroys the hater.