On "Seven Myths of the Holocaust" with Werner Reich

On "Seven Myths of the Holocaust" with Werner Reich

Werner Reich, one of the few Holocaust survivors still alive today, gave a presentation on Apr. 2 entitled “Seven Myths of the Holocaust.” Not only did he tell the horrifying story of his own experiences in concentration camps—including Auschwitz—as a teenager, but he debunked some false conceptions people have about the Holocaust.

Reich was born in Germany and fled to Yugoslavia with his sister when the Holocaust began, but was arrested and beaten by Gestapo agents. He was, in his words, shipped to Austria and then the Terezín concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, before ending up in Auschwitz. He lived in inhumane conditions there, but was luckily spared from execution. When the United States army came close to liberating Auschwitz, he and 60,000 other prisoners were put on a death march through the snow, with 15,000 of them dying on the way. They were sent to Mauthausen, which Reich described as the “concentration camp from hell”—a haunting word choice, considering the awful conditions he had already been living in. He very nearly starved to death at Mauthausen. He was seventeen.

His story naturally reminded me of my grandmother, whose Jewish family fled Austria due to the Holocaust when she was a child, lived in Tanzania for about four years and then moved to the US. They were lucky and privileged to have the time and money to escape a fate similar to Reich’s, if not worse.

The content of Reich’s presentation was deadly serious and he spared no awful or sickening detail in both his account of his own experiences and the myths he addressed—such as the number of Nazis who escaped justice and the number of killing units contributed by countries besides Germany. However, his unusual sense of humor added a degree of levity at times.

“It was crazy thinking about everyone else that was complicit in the Holocaust rather than just Germany, because people usually only talk about that,” Nazifa Mahee, a student who attended the lecture, said. “Germany is usually the one that gets blamed a lot but other countries played a role in it.”

Reich did not focus the presentation on the suffering of Jews alone. One of the key myths that he refuted was the idea that Jews were the only victims of the Holocaust; as he explained, approximately half of the twelve million victims were non-Jewish, including Romani people, disabled people, homosexuals, and Russian prisoners of war. He also recognized the Nazis’ persecution of African-Germans and the fact that the tactics used in the Rwandan genocide were even more brutal than those used by the Nazis.

This contributed to the larger theme of the presentation, which was that the Holocaust is just one of many historical instances in which minorities have been persecuted and oppressed by the majority. Throughout the presentation he attributed this pattern to ignorance, scapegoating, and the spread of misinformation, but his final point was that this was an instance of the bystander effect; the voice of the majority could have stopped the Holocaust.

Reich ended with a simple but powerful message, paraphrasing a quote from Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw: “indifference is the essence of inhumanity.”

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