To Lie on the Bottom

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Matthew Small
History of the Holocaust
Prof. Bemporad

‘To Lie on the Bottom’

There is a reason that World War II and the Holocaust are considered turning points in human history, a point from which everything changed: philosophy, art, music, film, architecture, politics, history, even the very concept of humanity was altered in an often imperceptible way. Something in us died; extinguished by a darkness so all-encompassing and cold that all hope and beauty and reason and love could not survive it, nothing could, not even God himself. This darkness, this ephemeral force worse than death eventually destroyed Primo Levi, but what it couldn’t destroy, was his soul. His soul witnessed and suffered something worse than death, “a journey towards nothingness, a journey down there, towards the bottom”(Levi, 17) and this tale from the very bottom of hell showed us a side of man never before seen. Dante’s Inferno where there is no God or heaven or right or wrong, but only hunger and despair. A moral hierarchy envisaged by the masterminds of the Final Solution, a cold, remorseless world where the innocent are destroyed and the strong enslaved. A world guided by the “ferocious law which states: ‘to he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away’.”(88)

The hierarchy of this realm is distant from the rest of humanity, a timeless realm devoid of any remnants of what has been or what is yet to be. A barren, flat, colorless landscape scarred by never-ending paths of metal and wood all leading into the maw of a churning, smoke belching monster marked with a grim, foreboding preface “Arbeit Macht Frei, work gives freedom”(22). This is Auschwitz, a place unlike anywhere else in the annals of human history, “This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen”(22). In a place where the old, the young, and the weak are swallowed into the night and are gone forever, in a godless place like this nothing is as it should be. At the top of this mad house lies the most depraved of all, for in this place the insane rule over the sane, and the cold, mechanical fist of the S.S. is law. An extension of the mad-man responsible for this place, they are hand-picked and forged into thoughtless, remorseless killing machines and entrusted with Hitler’s most important goal: the destruction of the Jew. Little is said about these brutal men, they are above the camp and therefore distant from it, the camp to them is merely their work place and “they behave with the calm assurance of people doing their normal duty of every day.” At times they speak to the prisoners like animals whipping them into attention “in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seem to give vent to a millennial anger”, but during the selections when they decide who lives or dies with the slightest glance they are indifferent and speak “in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone… We had expected something more apocalyptic: they seemed simple police agents. It was disconcerting and disarming”(19). Levi would soon discover that despite their outward appearance, these cold agents of doom were the most apocalyptic men on earth entrusted with the unspeakable mission of the destruction of his people.

Below the SS men in the next rung of hell resided the ‘Prominenz’, inhabitants of Block 7 in which no regular prisoner has ever entered, they were “the aristocracy, the internees holding the highest post”(32). Below them were the Reichsdeutsche, the Aryan Germans, and the Kapos “they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals, installed (following an investiture by the SS command, which showed itself in such choices to possess satanic knowledge of human beings) in the posts of...
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