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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Valentine's Day, 1945

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

It wasn’t until I read my uncle’s memoir a few years ago that I realized the significance of February 14th in our family’s history. For one thing, it was my maternal grandfather Alfred’s birthday. Seventy-five years ago he celebrated his 41st birthday as a German soldier somewhere on the eastern front, perhaps in a field hospital, recovering from the shrapnel wound that came millimetres from taking out his left eye.

The fact that it was her husband’s birthday must surely have crossed my grandmother’s mind that Valentine’s Day, just one more ingredient in the jumble of thoughts and emotions churning within her. She had been up in a panic all the previous night, packing a small handcart with supplies, clothing and anything else she thought she and her children would need as they left their home behind. The Red Army was marching through Poland, and my mother’s family lived in a small village in Silesia, very near the border. At 9 am that morning the villagers, including my grandmother, my 15-year-old mother and my 11-year-old uncle, gathered at a marshalling point and began their flight westward.

My mother Sigrid with her brother Reinhardt and my grandmother Frieda (centre) at a neighbour's farm, shortly before becoming refugees in February, 1945

Only a few weeks earlier, on January 27, the Soviets had stumbled across the Auschwitz concentration camp and liberated the 7000 or so inmates remaining there, bringing to an end that particular chapter of the Nazi horror story. The liberation was just a lucky accident, however, a minor detour for the Russians on their relentless march to Berlin.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that it was the Soviet army that closed down the abomination that was Auschwitz. As they continued their victorious sweep through eastern Germany the Russian soldiers committed atrocities of their own, including the rapes, with the implicit or even explicit approval of their officers, of hundreds of thousands of German women and girls. In his memoir, my uncle remembers how the family wondered “…what would happen, should the Russians gain the upper hand? We had heard so many horrendous stories about them. In no case did we wish to fall into their hands.” Because of their decision to flee, and because they ended up in the American zone of occupation in Bavaria, my mother and her sister were fortunate to escape the fate that befell so many other German women.

The orgy of murder and sexual violence that marked the early years of the Soviet occupation was just one more episode in the cascade of cataclysmic events set off by the election of Hitler’s Nazis in 1933. The “seizure of power,” the persecution of political opponents, Jews and other minorities, the Holocaust, the war – over a decade of suffering, death and destruction. Sixty million dead, including twenty million Russians. Twenty million. An almost incomprehensible number. A burning thirst for revenge played a major role in the Russians’ barbarous crimes against their German enemies once they had defeated them.

As I watched the commemoration ceremony of the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation I was struck by a common concern expressed by many of the speakers: that we are poised to repeat history. The signs are there, not just in Europe but in America and many other areas of the world as well. Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, reminded us how the world community’s endeavours to “never again” allow horrors like Auschwitz and the Holocaust to occur have fallen short, citing incidents of genocide that have taken place in the intervening years, and warned of the “revival of old spectres” of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.

Polish journalist and Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski noted that Auschwitz “did not fall from the sky.” During the seven years of the Third Reich before the onset of the war, civil liberties were rescinded, one by one, and the persecution of Jews and other minorities was stepped up, also gradually, until people became desensitized and indifferent to the plight of the “others.” He exhorted us to remember what he termed the eleventh commandment: “thou shalt not be indifferent.”

Somehow the intersection of Valentine’s Day, my family history and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz leads me to reflect again on human nature and how quickly the veneer of civil society can peel off and expose the primal impulses that lie beneath. I think of my grandparents who were Nazi supporters, not because they were antisemitic, necessarily, but because Hitler represented the restoration of German national pride and prosperity. Were they among those who were indifferent to the incremental measures imposed by the Nazis against the Jews of Germany during the 1930s? I can’t be sure, but I suspect they were. Then there were the Russians who, after liberating the death camp at Auschwitz went on to ravage eastern Germany. Those soldiers were also just ordinary young men who told themselves the normal moral codes did not apply—the suffering their country had endured at the hands of the Nazis justified reciprocation, however depraved, against any German man, woman or child.

Today, we witness the Hilteresque persona of Donald Trump gaining political momentum for re-election in the USA. His supporters are not evil. For the most part, they are decent human beings who, for one reason or another, have found their saviour. Trump’s relentless bombast and simplistic catchphrases have struck a chord. His followers believe that he can bring a return to a less complicated time when they did not feel threatened and confounded by the complex issues of the twenty-first century—immigration, globalization, climate change, economic disparity, LGBTQ rights, racial tensions—for which they blame Washington’s “liberal elites.”

Trump's MAGA rhetoric and the veiled (and sometimes blatant) disparagement of immigrants and minorities has led to a disturbing rise in racist, Islamophobic, antisemitic and homophobic attacks. The trajectory of our collective consciousness toward tolerance, achieved through years of struggle, has been reversed. The current situation perfectly mirrors what went down in Germany after the First World War. Adolf Hitler, an unlikely political leader, suddenly gained traction with his nationalist rants and his contempt for the “liberalistic” elites of the Weimar democracy. The conservative German establishment, which regarded Hitler with disdain, nevertheless enabled his dissolution of the government and seizure of power as the only way to prevent a Communist takeover. They believed they could control Hitler and make him their puppet. And we all know how that went.

And now here we are, on this day dedicated to love, perched somewhere along that same slippery slope. So far, our democratic institutions and rule of law remain intact. But, as the history of Germany demonstrates, everything can change overnight. In the words of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, invoked by Marian Turski during the 75th anniversary ceremony: “It happened; therefore it can happen again ... It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”

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Feb 14, 2020

Beautifully done, Karl. I love the way you've woven together the past and present with a personal story.

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