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Night and Fog

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Even a peaceful landscape...
even a meadow in harvest, with crows circling overhead and grass fires...
even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass...
even a resort village with a steeple and country fair
can lead to a concentration camp.
Struthof, Oranienburg, Auschwitz,
Neuengamme, Belsen, Ravensbruck, Dachau-
these were names like any others on maps and in guide books.
The blood has dried, the tongues have fallen silent.
The only visitor to the blocks now is the camera.
A strange grass covers the paths once trod by inmates.
No current runs through the wires.
No footstep is heard but our own.
The machine goes into action.
A nation must have no discord.
No complaints or quarrels.
The nation gets down to work.
A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or a hotel is built:
With businessmen, estimates, competitive bids,
and no doubt a bribe or two.
No specific style- that's left to the imagination.
Alpine style.
Garage style.
Japanese style.
No style.
Architects calmly design the gates meant to be passed through only once.
Meanwhile, Burger, a German worker,
Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam,
Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow,
and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives,
not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away.
One day their quarters are ready.
All that's missing is them.
Seized in Warsaw,
deported from Lodz, Prague,
Brussels, Athens,
Zagreb, Odessa or Rome,
interned at Pithiviers,
captured in Vel-d'Hiv,
members of the resistance rounded up in Compiegne,
the masses, taken by surprise, by error or by chance
begin theirjourney to the camps.
Trains sealed and bolted.
A hundred people crammed into a car.
No day, no night. Hunger, thirst, suffocation, madness.
A message flutters to the ground. Will it be found?
Death makes its first cut.
Its second is made on arrival in the night and fog.
Today, on the same tracks, the sun shines.
We go slowly along them, looking for what?
Traces of the corpses that fell to the ground when the car doors opened?
Or perhaps of those driven to the camps at gunpoint
amid the barking dogs and glaring searchlights,
with the flames of the crematorium in the distance,
in one of those night scenes so dear to a Nazi's heart.
First sight of the camp. It is another planet.
Under the pretext ofhygiene,
nudity strips the inmates of all pride in one stroke.
Caught up in some incomprehensible hierarchy,
dressed in a blue-striped uniform,
sometimes classified under the decree known as "Nacht und Nebel,"
"night and fog."
Political prisoners wearing the red triangle meet those wearing the green triangle:
Common criminals, masters in the ranks.
At the top, the Kapo,
almost always a common criminal.
Higher up yet: The SS, the untouchables, to be addressed from ten feet away.
At the top, the Commandant, who oversees the camp routine.
He pretends to know nothing of the camp.
Who does know anything?
The reality of these camps, despised by those who built them,
and unfathomable to those who endured them-
what hope do we have of truly capturing this reality?
The wooden barracks where people slept three to a bed,
the burrows where they hid
and ate in furtive fear
and where sleep itself presented a threat-
no description, no image can reveal their true dimension:
Endless, uninterrupted fear.
We would need the straw mattress, at once pantry and strongbox,
the fiercely contested blanket, the denunciations and curses,
the orders repeated in every tongue,
the sudden appearance of the SS,
zealous in their spot checks and practical jokes.
Of this brick dormitory and these tormented dreams
we can but show you the outer shell, the surface.
Here is the setting:
Buildings that could pass for stables, garages or workshops.
Poor land, now turned into a wasteland.
An indifferent autumn sky.
These are all we have left to imagine a night of piercing cries,
of checking for lice, of chattering teeth.
Try to get to sleep quickly.
Wake at the crack of dawn,
stumble over each other in search of goods stolen in the night.
5:00 a.m. - Endless assembly on the inspection ground.
The night's dead throw the figures off.
An orchestra plays a march from some operetta
as inmates head off to the quarry or the factory.
Work in the snow that quickly turns to frozen mud.
Work in the August heat, worn out by thirst and dysentery.
Three thousand Spaniards died building these steps
leading to the Mauthausen quarry.
Work in the underground factories.
Month after month they burrow, bury, hide, kill.
They have women's names: Dora, Laura.
But these strange 70-pound workers are unreliable.
The SS watches them and oversees them.
They gather, inspect and frisk them before they return to camp.
Rustic signs direct everyone home.
The Kapo has only to tally up the day's victims.
The inmates once again take up their driving obsession:
Each spoonful is priceless.
One spoonful less is one less day to live.
Two or three cigarettes are bartered for a bowl of soup.
Many are too weak to defend their ration against thieves.
They wait for the mud or snow to take their life.
To lie down somewhere, anywhere, and die alone.
The latrines and their surroundings.
Skeletons with bloated stomachs came here seven or eight times a night.
The soup was a diuretic.
Woe to him who ran into a drunken Kapo in the moonlight.
The inmates eye one another fearfully,
on the lookout for the familiar symptoms:
To "pass blood"was a sign of death.
The black market: Clandestine buying, selling and killing.
They would call on their friends, swap news and gossip,
organize resistance groups.
A society gradually takes form, sculpted by terror and fear,
but less deranged than that of the SS and its slogans:
"Cleanliness is health."
"Work is freedom."
"To each his due."
"A louse means death." What to say, then, of an SS officer?
Each camp has its surprises:
A symphony orchestra.
A zoo.
Hothouses where Himmler cultivated rare plants.
Goethe's oak at Buchenwald.
They built the camp around it but left the oak intact.
An orphanage, transient but constantly replenished.
Barracks for the invalids.
At times like these, the real world, the world from before,
with its peaceful landscapes, could seem not so far off.
But it was just an illusion for the inmate.
His world was this closed, self-contained universe,
hemmed in by observation posts
from which soldiers kept watch,
aiming at the prisoners,
on occasion killing them out ofboredom.
Everything is but a pretext for taunts, punishment
and humiliation.
Roll call goes on for hours.
Apoorly made bed means 20 baton blows.
Call no attention to yourself. Make no sign to the gods.
They have their gallows, their sacrificial ground.
This yard in Block 11, shielded from view,
has been specially arranged for executions,
its walls protected against ricocheting bullets.
Hartheim, from whence trains with smoked windows depart,
bearing passengers who will never be seen again.
The "black transports"that leave at night and which no one ever hears of again.
But man is resilient.
Though the body's worn out with fatigue, the mind works on.
Hands wrapped in bandages labor on.
They make spoons, puppets to be hidden away.
They manage to write, make notes.
Keep their mind sharp and their dreams alive.
"Crawfish a la basquaise"
They turn their thoughts to God.
They even organize politically,
challenging the common criminals for control of the camp routine.
They look after friends who are worse off.
They share their food with them and help each other.
As a last resort, and with anguished hearts,
they take the dying to the camp hospital.
The building gave the illusion of a real hospital
and hope of finding a real bed,
but delivered the real risk of death by syringe.
The medicines are make-believe. The dressings are mere paper.
The same ointment is used on every sore and for every disease.
Sometimes the starving eat their dressings.
In the end, each inmate resembles the next:
A body of indeterminate age that dies with its eyes wide open.
There is a surgical block.
For a moment you might think you were in a real clinic.
An SS doctor.
A terrifying nurse.
But what's behind the facade?
Pointless operations, amputations,
experimental mutilations.
The Kapos, just like the SS surgeons, try their hand as well.
The big chemical companies send samples of toxic products to the camps,
or they buy a batch of inmates to try them out on.
A few of these guinea pigs survive,
Burned with phosphorus.
For some, their flesh will be marked for life,
despite having made it home from the camps.
The administration photographs the inmates as soon as they arrive.
Names are noted too, names from 22 nations.
They fill hundreds ofledgers, thousands of files.
A red line strikes out the names of the dead.
The prisoners keep these mad, always inaccurate books
under the watchful eye of the SS and the privileged Kapos.
These are the bosses of the camp, the elite.
The Kapo has his own room, where he can hoard supplies
and receive his young favorites in the evening.
The Commandant has his villa nearby,
where his wife does her part to keep up a respectable family life,
just like in any other garrison town.
Though perhaps she's just a bit more bored:
The war doesn't seem to want to end.
Luckier still, the Kapos have a brothel.
Better-fed women, but, like the others, doomed to die.
Sometimes a crust ofbread falls from these windows for a comrade outside.
Thus the SS managed to build the semblance of a real city,
with its hospital, red-light district, residential district,
and, yes, even a prison.
Useless to describe what went on in these cells.
In cages so designed that inmates could neither stand nor lie down,
men and women were methodically tortured for days on end.
The air vents were not soundproof.
Himmler pays a visit.
"We must destroy, but productively."
Leaving the production aspects to his technicians,
Himmler concentrates on destruction.
They study plans.
They carry them out, the prisoners themselves helping with the work.
A crematorium from the outside can look like a picture postcard.
Today tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them.
Deportation spreads all over Europe.
The convoys lose their way, stop, then start again,
are bombed, and finally arrive.
For some, the cut has already been made.
For the rest, it will be done soon enough.
Those on the left will work, while those on the right...
These pictures were taken moments before a mass killing.
Killing by hand takes time.
Cylinders of zyklon gas are ordered.
Nothing distinguished the gas chamber from an ordinary block.
Inside, what looked like a shower room welcomed the new arrivals.
The doors were closed.
A watch was kept.
The only sign- but you have to know-
are the fingernail scrapings on the ceiling.
Even the concrete was scratched up.
When the crematoria prove insufficient, pyres are set up.
But the ovens can handle thousands ofbodies a day.
Everything was saved.
Here are the reserves of the Nazis at war.
Here are their warehouses.
Nothing but women's hair.
At 15 pfennigs a kilo, it's used for making cloth.
From the bones...
fertilizer-at least, they tried.
From the bodies- Words are insufficient.
From the bodies they make soap.
As for the skin...
The camps are spreading, and they're full.
Cities of 100,000 inhabitants, full to bursting.
Heavy industry takes an interest in this endlessly renewable labor force.
Factories have camps of their own, offlimits to the SS.
Steyer, Krupp, Heinckel,
I. G. Farben, Siemens, Hermann Goering recruit their labor here.
The Nazis may win the war.
These new towns are part of their economy.
But they are losing the war.
There's no coal for the crematoria, no bread for the inmates.
The streets of the camps are strewn with corpses.
When the Allies open the doors...
All the doors...
The inmates look on without understanding.
Are they being freed? Will everyday life know them again?
"I am not responsible," says the Kapo.
"I am not responsible," says the officer.
"I am not responsible."
Then who is responsible?
As I speak to you now, the icy water of the ponds and ruins
fills the hollows of the mass graves,
a frigid and muddy water, as murky as our memory.
War nods off to sleep,
but keeps one eye always open.
Grass flourishes again on the inspection ground around the blocks.
An abandoned village, still heavy with peril.
The crematoria are no longer used.
The Nazis'cunning is but child's play today.
Nine million dead haunt this countryside.
Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower
to warn of the arrival of our new executioners?
Are their faces really different from our own?
Somewhere in our midst, lucky Kapos still survive,
reinstated officers and anonymous informers.
There are those who refused to believe, or believed only for brief moments.
With our sincere gaze we survey these ruins,
as if the the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble.
We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past,
as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of the camps.
We pretend it all happened only once, at a given time and place.
We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us
and a deaf ear to humanity's never-ending cry.
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