Reminiscing the inhuman in humans

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That night, the soup tasted of corpses.  ~ Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, “Night”

I waited for this thin volume to arrive for nearly a month. It was a book I have longed to read: Night by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. I stumbled on it via a social media book dealer to whom I had placed an order prior to the ASEAN summit here. The long holiday did much to hamper book deliveries for several weeks.

It arrived late afternoon of Tuesday last week and immediately I scanned the pages. The book is about the author’s life as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi Germany’s two most horrifying death camps—Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He and his family were seized by Nazi officers in 1944 at the height of the purge and brought to these camps.

The little I have read already secured the book’s reputation as “a slim volume of terrifying power,” as mentioned by The New York Times book review.

One particular account of the numerous hangings of Jews held me by the throat. Two men and a young boy, a pipel, they called him, found themselves accused of sabotage. As a consequence, the two men suffered repeated torture for weeks in the hands of the SS in order to force him to reveal the names of the saboteurs. They mentioned no one.

As for the boy, he too suffered torture in the hands of the Gestapo while in solitary confinement. He, too, bravely held back his lips.

The next day, the officer of the camp read the verdict. The two men and the young boy were to be hanged in full view of the other prisoners that same day. Wiesel wrote, “The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter […] All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadows of the gallows.”

Minutes later, the nooses were placed ‘round their necks. Then the three chairs were tripped over.

The two men died mere minutes of each other. But the boy, whose weight was too light, hung there for more than an hour, “lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes; we were forced to look at him at close range,” Wiesel wrote.

The boy was still writhing in agony of a death that refused to come even after Wiesel and the other prisoners were led to the mess hall for dinner. His recollection of that night at the mess hall he framed in these words, “That night, the soup tasted of corpses”.

It has been close to a century since that horrifying day at the gallows in Auchwitz. You’d think humanity has learned something from the acts of evil men. Sadly, such displays of depravity are as real today as they were in Nazi concentration camps.

The Rohingya purge and rapes happening in Myanmar, the ISIS terror campaigns around the globe, the resurgence of white supremacists in America, African refugees being sold as slaves in Libya, and many others suggest that the world is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, if not there already.

The wholesale murders of children and youngsters in the streets of Metro Manila seem to form part of a fascist campaign to rid itself of anything and everything that remotely suggests addiction or opposition—their innocence or guilt makes little difference.

As an allegory, the grim scene in the gallows of Auschwitz in 1944 fits perfectly well in our situation today. The world as we know it resembles that young boy hung there for no apparent reason or evidence of guilt. Writhing, gasping for life, helpless about his fate, with gravity taking its own sweet time. Death had refused him his chance at final freedom until much later.

The painful truth, of course, has yet to be given prominence in stories told about the Holocaust. Why, for instance, thousands upon thousands of Jews just sat there without so much as a whimper while their comrades were led as lambs to the slaughter? That feeling of total helplessness while they were hoarded by a handful of armed guards into the gas chambers—what was to account for that?

I am not here dissing the Jewish people, nor am I calling them cowards. Jewish resistance groups flourished during Adolf Hitler’s regime, within and outside the camps. I simply cannot understand the restraint and introversion many displayed while they were slaughtered in hoards.

And then I see the same reticence in my own people while poor families are slaughtered, their children murdered in the streets, fathers and mothers shot like diseased animals. How many thousands have already fallen, none of whom were legally proven guilty of addiction or drug trafficking?

Now the targets are activists and farmers, students and teachers. Talks of a ‘revolutionary government’ have sent ripples of fear among advocates of human rights.

Is this story going to end in the same manner as the gallows of Auschwitz, that young boy who hung for hours, hoping that death would finally claim him? Is our death the final solution to the murders happening around us? Should we just wait and die to get it over with?

Must we simply sit back and wait for our turn in the gas chambers, the firing squad, or the riding-in-tandem murderers? Must one of our own fall, one dear to us, before we take immediate steps to curb this madness?

What are you saying Mr. Journalist? Are you advocating an armed revolution?

I am advocating none of the sort. Like Duterte, I am advocating for change—radical change—but the kind where the majority, not the few in power, would decide the country’s destiny.

A change which begins with our way of thinking, one that would later spill over into our way of life. A change too unequivocal to be denied, too eye-catching to be shrugged aside.

Duterte’s idea of change is no more radical than it is life-altering. His idea of change is simply this: everyone must change, must undergo the discipline of the State, except him.

The most difficult thing about democracy is its emphasis on the principle of presumption of innocence. It’s a principle that respects no person or status. If you’re a lover of liberty, you must for reasons that strengthen such principles to presume everyone—including those you hate for one reason or another—as guiltless until they are proven otherwise by a standing court.

This is the arena of battle. This is where we must all fight—through learning and activism, art and legislation. If all else fails, through words.

Unless you have an appetite for soup that tastes of corpses. G




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