Bad things happens when good people stay silent. Dr David Berger is speaking out.
Above is a photo of my grandmother, Margot von Bentheim, taken with my mother in the Spring of 1925. She would have been 60 when I was born, but she died at the age of 35.
A Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she committed suicide, alone, despairing and destitute in Chile in 1941, leaving a six-year-old girl with no Spanish – my aunt – to be brought up in an orphanage.
The girl was not found again by the family for nine years, by which time she could no longer speak German, but was able to apologise, in Spanish, for not having been able to prevent her mother’s death.
Meanwhile, Margot’s own mother and sister were sent to the concentration camps, which they survived, but which her sister’s husband and two sons did not.
On my father’s side is also written the history of Jewish persecution in the first half of the 20th century. The family fled west at the turn of the century to escape the Russian pogroms. The lucky ones, the prescient ones perhaps, kept going and ended up in Britain and America.
The ones who stayed in mainland Europe ended up caught in the maelstrom.
One day in 1942, gentle, dignified Uncle Solomon and his wife were taken from their apartment in Marseilles and vanished into the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ of wartime Europe. Their fate remains unknown.
There are many other tragic tales of my family from that period which I could relate, but these will suffice. I am a Jew, then, with a personal history in refugee matters, now a doctor in Australia who advocates forcefully for individual refugees caught in the Hell of offshore detention and who also campaigns more generally against these inhumane policies.
There can be few with a bigger, angrier, more ferocious dog in the fight over whether it is justified to draw analogies between the systematic regime of torture, persecution and extermination of the Nazis and the present regime in Australia of indefinite incarceration in appalling conditions of innocent people seeking refuge here.
Some Jewish groups in particular get upset when such analogies are made, accusing the people who make them of ‘trivialising’ the Holocaust. They are completely wrong and here is why.
There can be no doubt that many acts of the Nazis in the Holocaust were unique, not just in their scale, but in the overt, calculated expression of their ideology of genocide and racial purity and the industrial manner in which this was put into practice.
A visit to Auschwitz illustrates this graphically in just one gut-wrenching afternoon.
Auschwitz 1, the original camp, was a Polish army barracks, converted into a place of fiendish torture, the echoes of which remain so vivid today that it is an unspeakable trauma to visit.
So far, so horrific, but the real eye opener is Auschwitz 2, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp a few kilometres outside town, which was opened later as a key element in the ‘Final Solution’.
On the face of it, there is much less to see here – the gate with its mendacious sign (‘Arbeit macht frei’), rows of drab, anonymous barracks, a few chimneys, a railway siding – but this was a polished death factory, the likes of which the world has not seen before or since.
With methodical, emotionless Teutonic efficiency, Jews arrived in cattle trucks at one end and, with surprisingly little fuss, left mostly within a few hours as ashes out of the chimneys.
The banality of the place, the matter of factness of it, the industrialisation of evil, make it so much more horrific even than Auschwitz 1. If you can get your head round it, that is, which isn’t easy.
As a boy in England, I grew up with the Holocaust ever present. I used to lie awake at night from a very young age, five or six years old, wondering what it would have been like standing in line, naked, waiting for the gas chambers. I still do.
I used to share my mother’s anger at her own mother for being so ‘weak’ as to have committed suicide. I used to debate long and hard with my mother over why it all happened. For years, I refused to accept her uncompromising assertion that what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere: “Not in England, Mum! No way. English people aren’t like that.”
Of course, now I know she was right. When her father fled Berlin in 1936, first for Argentina, then for Egypt, the family decided that she and her grandparents would be safe to stay: “They won’t do anything to the children and old people.” By late 1938, the truth finally dawned and they managed to flee to England; and so here I am.
They had not been able to believe what was happening around them. They had not been able to believe that their friends and neighbours, good Germans all, would allow anything awful to happen to them. They could not believe that Hitler and his thugs would be able to ‘get away with it’. It was incomprehensible to them.
And there is the real lesson the Nazis have taught us, the lesson we must draw on every day in 2016 if the gruesome experiences of 1933-1945 are to teach us anything from history: if you tell a big enough lie, a lie so far out of the experience of ordinary people that they cannot comprehend it, if you tell them that you are doing nothing more than keeping them safe, if you tell them that desperate times require desperate measures and if you do your utmost to conceal from them the unpleasant reality of what you are actually doing, then eventually you will find you can get away with absolutely anything, even the industrialised killing of millions of people.
So when Malcolm Turnbull tells us that ‘We must not be misty-eyed’ about border protection, it is indeed appropriate to recall the words of Joseph Goebbels in 1942: “There should be no squeamishness about it”.
And when we consider the ‘Nacht und Nebel’ (the ‘Night and Fog’) of the Nazis, it is indeed appropriate to draw an analogy with the information blackout which successive Australian governments have sought to place over immigration detention, and which has been solidified into the profoundly anti-democratic Border Force Act and the repeated lies of Peter Dutton, who told us recently that refugee advocates were ‘encouraging certain behaviours’ for political reasons, implying that the self-immolations of the last week were the fault of the advocates, a proposition so preposterous that it is Nazi in its magnitude.
And when we call these places of horror in the Pacific ‘concentration camps’, that is an appropriate term, because that is what they are.
And when we accuse the Australian government of selectively torturing brown-skinned people in the way the Nazis chose the Jews and other groups to torture and ultimately eliminate, that is an appropriate thing to do, because we all know, in our heart of hearts, that if these people fleeing oppression were white, English-speaking Christians (white Zimbabweans, say) then their treatment would be completely different.
The Holocaust is not something to be memorialised as if it were a granite monolith, a ‘Holy of Holies’ to be approached in sombre dress on remembrance days only, to the tolling of a bell or the mournful wail of a bugle, something so unique and grave that nothing else dare be mentioned in the same sentence.
My grandmother wasn’t at all like that. She was a vivacious young woman in the swinging Berlin of the 1920s. She used to dance on the piano at parties with Victor de Kowa, Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich and other film stars, directors and celebrities of that magical era. She apparently did a mean imitation of Felix the Cat.
I will not allow anyone to tell me how I may or may not use her memory and I am using it today to tell the world that it is completely appropriate to draw on Nazi analogies when we contemplate the horror of immigration detention in Australia, and reflect on how this could possibly be happening in what is supposedly one of the world’s leading democracies.
If we fail to do so then we will have failed to learn anything from the Nazis, and my grandmother’s death and Uncle Solomon’s death and the deaths and tragedies of all those other millions of people tortured and killed by the Nazis will be robbed of any meaning.
And no-one has the right to do that.