The Dangers of Indifference
Tanja Wessels, Alice Kok
Auschwitz survivor Werner Reich visits Asia for the first time
At age the age of 90, Auschwitz survivor Werner Reich visited Asia for the first time to present a series of lectures on the Holocaust. In Macau, he spoke at the University of Science and Technology, the University of Macau and to students from The International School of Macau, suggesting that it is in the hands of people to put an end to what is wrong in the world
Werner Reich was born in Berlin in 1927, and was just a teenager when the Gestapo arrested him in Yugoslavia in 1943 and took him from jail to jail until he was imprisoned in Auschwitz II in Poland. His crime? Being Jewish. In the concentration camp, also known as Birkenau extermination camp, 1.1 million Jews were killed. Werner was one of 89 youths, out of a total of 6,000, who evaded the selection process of doctor Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death”, in Auschwitz – Birkenau - the man who decided between life and death for the prisoners.
Last month, the survivor of the persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II, visited Macau at the invitation of the “Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre”, to tell his story of perseverance and resilience.
“Indifference kills” is the motto of his presentations at schools and public sessions, especially in the United States, where the Holocaust survivor resides. Werner Reich was recently in Portugal and the United Kingdom, and this was his first trip to Asia.
You have survived varying degrees of cruelty, from the first moment Gestapo agents entered your family home in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in 1943, to when you were taken prisoner and transferred from prison to prison until finally being imprisoned in Auschwitz II, in Poland. What made you go on and never give up? What was your defence mechanism?
Werner Reich - Basically I was optimistic. I was a teenager, and teenagers believe that nothing will happen to them. If I were in my 20s or 30s I probably would not have survived, I would have given up. But I was a teenager, I was an optimist. How did I survive? It was pure luck. I could have caught all sorts of illnesses, could have been shot, I could have frozen to death. I had to survive in an open train car for four days. Of the four days, I remember a day and a half, I don’t remember the rest of the time. I just slept, half frozen. All in all, it was a matter of luck, strictly luck.
At that moment, what thoughts were in your head?
Nothing, nothing at all. In those moments we stop thinking, we are in a mere state of self-preservation, we just think of surviving. The distance is so narrow, we are so close to death, that everything else is irrelevant. I was on the march of death [when 60,000 prisoners were transferred from Auschwitz I, a prison for German convicts where Werner was sent after Birkenau, bound for the Mauthausen camp in Austria], and there were people begging me for help and I did nothing. No one did anything. Because if I had helped them, they would have died and I would have died too.
Did you ever feel that you were reaching your limit, along this march?
You know ... there are emotions, there is the physical part, I was beaten. There are emotional issues, such as when I started to run in front of Dr. Mengele, trying to look much better and healthier than I really felt and was. Then there was the physical and emotional part, for example, when I was beaten by the prisoners with a baton and the pain was terrible [some prisoners collaborated with the system and assaulted other prisoners, and were known as “kapos”]. When I almost froze to death, when, in the Mauthausen camp, I almost starved to death. There are different categories of what can be considered the limit. I can not emphasize any, because each of the situations I experienced push human resistance to an extreme, to the point where we stop acting and nature takes control.
You grew up in an environment of great cruelty. How did you adapt to day-to-day lifer after the war?
Thank God I didn’t have the opportunity to relax and enjoy life. I returned to Yugoslavia during the time of the communist regime [Josip Broz Tito], where I immediately had to interact with other people, find a place to sleep. My feet were operated on [due to freezing]. I was under great pressure. I was living illegally. I said I was Yugoslavian when I really wasn’t. I was very scared of being arrested. I received a letter from the government saying that I had to join the army, in a kind of chemical division, when I had just left a concentration camp. All this put me under enormous pressure. I ended up going to England. There I encountered problems with the language, professional aptitudes, residence. I had a lot of pressure for many years, which was good, because I didn’t have the opportunity to sit down and suffer from post-traumatic stress. I see soldiers who were in war and when they return home they suffer exhaustion. I did not have time to settle down. I don’t even know of any cases of concentration camp survivors, male or female, who suffered post-traumatic stress or anything like that. We have all been under constant pressure. We were children, and the next minute we were adults without parents or family. We were never teenagers. I had my first, and only, girlfriend, around the age of 23. I married that girl.
Do the memories of your past still occupy your mind?
No. I never think about it. I never think about the camp, nothing makes me remember the camp. The only exception was maybe three years ago, I was cooking on a gas stove and the flame brushed my arm. I did not get burned, but the smell immediately reminded me of Auschwitz. It was the only thing. I never thought of anything beyond that.
Cases of genocide have continued to occur since the Holocaust and World War II. Why? What do you think is wrong with humanity?
There is nothing wrong with humanity. There is something wrong when people do not stop these killing acts. In Hitler’s time, at the beginning, there were a relatively small number of German forces. If the public had said “stop”, they could have been stopped. But nobody did. It takes a leader who wants to kill, a small group willing to kill and a vast population that approves of the killing. And there was this in Germany and in every country, a large part of the population that agreed with the slaughter.
What motivates you to tell and share your survival story, even today, at the age of 90?
This was not my full presentation. My presentation consists of three parts: the first part is an introduction to the holocaust, the other is my story, the third part is about people who did good things and how people can look around them and do good deeds. In the third part, I show how the Nazis were tyrannical and compare them with today’s bullies in schools. I do not want people to feel sorry for me. I speak in schools, I don’t make money from it. Last year I presented 96 sessions. Every time I say it costs me money. I have to put myself in a car, drive somewhere. I just don’t want the same to happen to my grandchildren or anyone else. That’s the reason I talk about it. If I had to talk only about me, without the opportunity to tell the public to be better people, I wouldn’t talk. I would not drive for miles, for hours, for someone to hear my story, and then say goodbye.
You want to change things.
Yes, I want to make a change, that’s why I talk about it. I don’t speak for any other reason. Some like to hear to my story, but for me it would be a waste of time. I’m a very person-oriented person; I believe there are very few bad people. I believe the vast majority of people are good, decent. If we’re decent, people are decent with us. I’ve met very few truly bad people, and I’ve met hundreds of people. But there are miserable people who have their own problems, who may perhaps be more bitter. But most are nice and want to be treated the same way.