Friday 27 January, 2012
After lunch on the Thursday I went with Katrina Johnson, Deputy Head of Mission, to attend the Holocaust Memorial Day service in Mechelen, Belgium. The Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the day that Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland was liberated and the full scale of the genocide gradually became known. The site of Mechelen was chosen by the Nazis as a transit camp because of its rail links, which went straight to the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jews were rounded up and brought to the camp primarily from Antwerp. Once the capacity of the camp reached 1000, individuals were placed on a train and sent off to the extermination camps.
I have walked through the bloody fields of Verdun and northern France, but yet nothing is as chilling as the Holocaust. It is one thing when the horrors of war are unleashed in artillery barrages against military combatants on both sides. Although there are still screams, chaos, blood, mud, and terror the Holocaust was perpetrated against young and old, male and female with an objective not to win territory or treasure, but to extinguish an entire ethnic group. It was done in quiet efficiency, in almost a routine way judging by the procedures at the transit camp and railway timetables. Moreover, we might want to believe that the camp was solely operated by evil German SS soldiers, but they were assisted by Belgian auxiliaries in the Flanders SS, and overseen by a puppet Belgian political regime and a murky role for Kind Leopold III which was to lead, after civil disturbances and a referendum, to his abdication in 1951.
This is not comfortable because we want to believe that this was the action of an insane brainwashed minority of one political and ethnic group. But the answer is not that easy and it instead reveals a capacity within the human being for acts of unspeakable evil when the circumstances are configured in such a way as to let it loose. In Britain we must not be smug and think that had the Nazi invasion plans succeeded we would have all been members of the resistance living in the hills and fighting them on the beaches rather than staying in the public square and turning a convenient blind eye to the round up of Jews and their dispatch from Dover to extermination camps. My advice on the evidence I have seen in Italy, Croatia, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland is: thank God every day that we weren’t tested in this way.
So, from Mechelen between July 1942 and August 1944 there were 28 train departures carrying 24,951 Jews and 351 Roma to the extermination camps. It would have been more but for the heroic work of individuals who rescued some from certain death. One of the people present was Andre Guelin, who rescued babies and small children and placed them in the homes of other families where they were raised as their own. Whilst she was rescuing children from certain death, she was also risking her own life if her work had been discovered. I had the opportunity of meeting Andre Guelin after the service (see picture) and express my thanks to her not as a Briton, or a Jew, but rather as a distinguished member of the human race. For this was a crime perpetrated not against the Jews by the Nazis, but against humanity by humans.
Andre Guelin embodied the spirit of that other great humanitarian, Edith Cavlell, who was a British nurse executed in German occupied Belgium during WWI. Her ‘crime’ was treating German and Allied soldiers in the same way on the basis of their need and their humanity; she famously pronounced ‘patriotism is not enough’ and while awaiting sentence concluded “I can’t stop whilst there are lives to be saved”. There may not be many Guelins and Cavells compared to SS guards and co-conspirators with evil, but their existence is proof of an extraordinary capacity within the human soul to rise above prejudice and hatred to instead display empathy and love of their fellow human beings. ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.’ John 1:15