When we visited the death camps at Auschwitz, we were told something which has stuck with me, something which made me realise that some people are incredibly brave, even unto death, and are never recognised for it. Not in this life, anyway.
We were told that as the Nazis refined their killing systems, they realised that the part that took time, that could not be rushed, was the disposal of the bodies. They had learned (the hard way) that having thousands of decomposing bodies in the ground was something of a health risk. The only way to successfully complete their genocide, was to refine the disposal of the bodies, and thus they built the crematoriums. The crematoriums were worked by prisoners, who were themselves killed after a certain period, so that no one knew too much and the scale of what was happening could be kept hidden. (I have no idea how hidden, or how you keep such a thing a secret, but that was their claim.)
Now, Auschwitz Birkenau was something of a model camp, and they increased their killing capacity by building more crematoriums. However, things didn’t go smoothly, as the new crematoriums kept breaking down. The Nazis complained to the engineers and architects, who blamed the Sonderkommando (the prisoners tasked with burning the bodies). Apparently, they said that it wasn’t their fault, the Sonderkommando must be scraping the inside of the ovens when they added bodies, which was breaking the seal, so the furnaces kept breaking.
Now, stop and think about that for a minute. We were told this by our guide in passing, as an interesting snippet of information. But stop and consider. These people were living under huge duress, their job was to load bodies into the ovens, they knew they wouldn’t survive for very long themselves, they had no power to fight the Nazis…and yet they managed to slow down the killing by damaging the ovens. Who did this? We don’t know. Nor do we know how many lives were saved by slowing down the process, but I’m guessing it was thousands because the prisoners could not be gassed until there was a way to dispose of the bodies, so every time a crematorium was out of order, the whole system would slow down, and fewer people would be killed.
I keep thinking about this, about those brave people who managed to find a way, even in their position, to save lives. They must have known that if they were discovered doing it, they would be shot. They would have known that they would soon be killed anyway, and yet they did what they could. In secret. No medals, no honour, no recognition—they may not have even told the people working next to them. I think, of all the stories we heard when at the camps, this was the one which affected me the most. It gives me hope that even in such awful times, individuals were able to be brave and do good. The challenge has to be, would we?