Stages of Evil

by Berry Friesen (May 2, 2017)

(The second of three posts inspired by my recent travel in Poland)

We often imagine evil barging in, its malevolence fully formed.  But more commonly, evil first appears as something less obvious. Perhaps we best learn from history by paying close attention to the evolution of evil, how it intensifies over time and develops a life of its own.

On April 27, Sharon and I visited a portion of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, located in the former Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory in the southern part of the city.  There we viewed an extensive exhibit documenting the Nazi occupation from September 6, 1939 until January 18, 1945.   During this time period, Krakow served as the capital of the “General Government,” the Nazi phrase for the structure of rule over occupied Poland.

Upon occupying Krakow, the General Government declared Krakow to be “a German city.” Polish monuments were removed; only Germans (about one percent of the population) could use the best parks and arts venues.  Jagiellonian University, Krakow’s pride-and-joy, was shut down, its professors imprisoned.

Also immediately, the General Government began widespread conscription of Polish citizens, some into the German Wehrmacht, some into local street-cleaning crews, many more into labor assignments in Germany and other Nazi-controlled lands where workers were needed to support the German war effort (arms manufacture, petrochemicals, mining, transportation, farming, etc.).

One such labor site was a metal fabrication factory owned by Oskar Schindler and located in an industrial neighborhood in the southern part of Krakow.  It manufactured pots and pans as well as ammunition.  Poles were conscripted to work there, Jews included. Most lived in their own homes, commuted to work, and received a food ration at work each day.  Most received a meager wage besides.

And in that initial flurry of activity, on November 18, 1939, the Nazi occupiers ordered all Jews over twelve years of age to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. Somewhat similarly, all Poles providing conscripted labor in Germany were required to wear yellow armbands with a large letter “P.”

On May 18, 1940, the city’s 65,000 Jews were ordered to leave Krakow and find places to live in rural towns and hamlets, thus making Krakow “a clean city” with room for incoming workers from Germany, Austria and elsewhere eager to staff the General Government.

Ten months later, on March 3, 1941, police summarily arrested the Jews still living across Krakow and force-marched them to Podgorze, the neighborhood where Schindler’s factory was located.  There the Nazis had enclosed a section of streets, houses and apartment buildings with a wall; all 1,500 former residents of that area were expelled and the 15,000 Jews who had been arrested were confined there.  Jews working in Schindler’s nearby factory were allowed to come and go through one of the four guarded gates, but it was an open-air prison for everyone else.

Thus 18 months into the occupation, the infamous Jewish ghetto of Krakow began.  In September, another 6,000 Jews were confined and housed there. Apartments that formerly housed one family now housed three or four.  A food ration of 200-300 calories a day per person was established. Malnutrition, squalor and disease proliferated; the capacity to work declined.

Beginning just over a year later (May, 1942), the Nazi’s began deporting Jews from the Krakow ghetto to other locations.  The last of these deportations occurred March 13-14, 1943.  During those two days, 8,000 able-bodied Jews were moved to the Plaszow work camp just east of Krakow and 2,000 of the diseased and incapacitated were murdered in the streets of the ghetto.  Perhaps another 2,000 were transported to the death camp in Auschwitz.

Prior to the final deportation, Oskar Schindler was able to arrange for 1,200 Jewish workers to move from the ghetto to another location, thus preserving his workforce and saving many of their lives.

I appreciated how the museum told this horrible story.  All Poles suffered under Nazi rule, but some more than others and the Jews most of all. Of course, those living through this era were acutely aware of this hierarchy of suffering; for most people, being “favored” by the occupiers through a “better” work assignment, a “richer” food ration, a more “peaceful” environment became the very focus of life.  This is often how we humans endure—by comparing ourselves favorably to others.

As for the German occupiers, the museum’s story suggests they set in motion events they could not control.  Their goals were instrumental:  dominance, a German ethos, a mobilized labor force, the clear identification of Jews as a threat to national security.  But within a relatively short time, those operational goals were overwhelmed by events: military reversals, food shortages, epidemics of disease, starvation.  Firing squads and death camps became default solutions.

It ended horribly, but along the way it was merely a banal process of using desired ends to justify awful means.

And though nothing in today’s world compares to the Jewish Holocaust, the pursuit of dominance and ends-justify-the-means thinking by US leaders has unleashed the evil to claim millions of lives in Korea, in Vietnam and in Iraq.   The pursuit of dominance and ends-justify-the-means thinking ravage Libya, Syria and Yemen still. Maybe 75 years from now, there will be museums describing how ever this could have happened.