Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
A few days ago, the Auschwitz Memorial posted a photograph of a man in a Nazi uniform, smiling with his family, a happy little girl and a dog. It was captioned: “One of the biggest challenges when we study the tragedy of Auschwitz, is to understand and accept that the perpetrators were not monsters. They were people – fathers, husbands and dog owners. People who accepted the ideology of hatred & evil and were able to do monstrous things on its behalf. This is one of the scariest part of this story.”
The perpetrators at Auschwitz, were not monsters.
The people who murdered more than a million men, women and children at Auschwitz, were ordinary people– fathers, husbands. They weren’t all psychopaths. Some of them were. But most were everyday people, just doing their job– doing the unpleasant, messy things that they determined they had to do. Then they went home to their pets, their families, their sons and daughters, and didn’t see that they’d done anything wrong.
I keep thinking about that word, “Monster.”
What is a monster?
What’s the difference between an ordinary person, and a monster?
I was once taken to see a performance of Sesame Street Live, back in the 1980s when I was in preschool. I liked most of it very much. But one of the musical numbers scared me half to death, in a way I never admitted to anyone. A chorus of overstuffed, google-eyed and hairy Muppets was dancing around the stage chanting “we’re all monsters, we’re all monsters,” and that was silly and fun. But then, the curtain in the giant auditorium pulled back to reveal a colossal monster, a monster puppet it must have taken several puppeteers to control– a wide-eyed Muppet monster over fifteen feet high, singing along in a horrifying voice.
My parents bought me a commemorative book, with pictures of the various musical numbers in it, and I liked to look at it– but couldn’t turn to the “we’re all monsters” page unless I was hiding under the bed. And even then, it gave me shudders.
A monster is something that scares you so much, you feel you can’t behold it without hiding yourself.
Later, in elementary school, I found a rather gory series of retellings of Greek myths in the school library.
Each book had, as its subject, the life story of one Greek monster, and they went into lavish detail about the havoc the monster wreaked. I learned about Scylla and Charybdis, the Furies, the Sirens, the Gorgons, the Cyclops, the Geryon. Heroes would arise and defeat the monsters, often dispatching them in ways that seemed far too violent for a children’s book, and sometimes I was confused as to whom I was supposed to root for. I felt sorry for some of the monsters– the gorgons, in particular. They were out on a remote island minding their own business, and they couldn’t help what they were. Still, that was how the story worked. Monsters exist, therefore men rise up and kill them, and these men are heroes.
A monster is something that simply has to be killed– because it’s a monster, that’s why.