The Disposable Ones

It’s going on seven years now, since I visited the Nazi concentration camps. I’m still processing, as you can imagine. What surprised me in my visit was how viscerally the physical visit to the actual place affected me. Reading about genocide is something of a traumatic experience. (It is possible that one can suffer from what is called “secondary post-traumatic stress syndrome.”) Visiting the concentration camp sites, though, even 70 some odd years after the Holocaust is traumatic in a way that I’ve not quite been able to understand. There’s something about being there, in that place, that resonates in a deep way, in a way that you don’t get when you read about it in a book.

I’ve been slowly reading through the very thoughtful The Culture of Make Believe by one of my favorite authors, Derrick Jensen. He talks about the Holocaust from a particular slant I’ve not considered: the bureaucratic side. The objective, technical discussions that have to do with making a genocide happen. For example, if you were a NAZI manager in charge of “a final solution” and you’ve had a problem with how do get rid of the bodies, this company had a solution: “For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders. Each furnace will have an oven measuring only 600 millimeters in breadth and 450 millimeters in height, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.”

Here’s another memo: “Following our verbal discussion regarding the delivery of equipment of simple construction for the burning of bodies, we are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and have hitherto given full satisfaction.” This one is in regards to the ovens at Dachau. Dachau was one of two concentration camps  that I visited, and I remember visiting the killing floors, where thousands passed through, in their last act. For me it is horrific to think about. But for some folks, wearing suits and working in offices, all those years ago, it was just a business, a technical problem to be solved. One company even gave a recipe for using the human fat to make soap. Might as well turn a profit. Customer satisfaction is our number one goal.

Here’s Jensen’s wisdom on the subject, from the book I’m reading: “The conversion of the living to the dead has been converted from a moral, human, question into a technical problem to be solved, and, if at all possible, profited from.” In other words, to be normal human beings is to be born with empathy and compassion. Getting past this internal, spiritual reality in order to commit mass killings requires either red hot, irrational rage or the cold scientific calculations of the guys back in the office and in the lab. And so it goes that people are just “Jews,” they’re not like us, they are disposable. They’re a problem, and there’s a technical solution.

Let’s take this a bit farther. To be a normally functioning human being is to be born with empathy and compassion for all life on earth. Human. Nonhuman. People. Animals. The dynamic whole, the interconnection of all life. So, getting past this internal, spiritual reality – this innate sense of empathy – in order to commit mass killing and destruction requires either red hot, irrational rage or the cold scientific calculations from the guys back in the office and in the lab. Trees, for example, become “raw materials,” to be removed because they are “in the way” of the development of a strip mall or housing suburb. They are separate and disposable, these trees, and only exist to help us furnish our living rooms. This is the mindset of our culture that is so deadly and destructive.

The alternative is a new vision. A new vision that is at the same time a return to the old way of thinking: that we exist to commune with empathy and compassion with the whole of reality, not chopping it up into segments that are disposable and those that are not: These humans are valuable and these are not – the human world is valuable and the “nonhuman” is not. If there is anything that is the heart and soul of the Gospel of Jesus, this is it – the vision of true communion. Because here is the catch, here is what is at stake: ultimately, when a culture goes down that road, everyone and everything becomes disposable. Just leave it to the guys in the office to handle the technical details.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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