In recent weeks, reading various obituaries of Pope Benedict XVI, I came across the following passage which touched me, from a speech he gave in 2000, before he became Pope:
Cardinal Ratzinger spent some time reflecting on the “name of God.” “The Apocalypse speaks about God’s antagonist, the beast. This animal does not have a name, but a number.”
In order to understand what this means, he recalled the dramatic experience of the concentration camps. “In their horror, they cancel faces and history, transforming man into a number, reducing him to a cog in an enormous machine. Man is no more than a function.”Insidious Threat to Fatherhood
This quote spoke powerfully to me – not just because it related to the Josem family history, but because it captured a powerful emotional truth that I saw when I visited Auschwitz several years ago.
When visiting Auschwitz, I was deeply surprised: I expected to be emotionally devastated by the evil of that space.
But I wasn’t.
Coldness of Industrialised Genocide
When visiting, I felt an extreme coldness of industrialisation. The Nazi death camps were, of course, places where great evil was done. But in many respects, they were a place for committing not just a spiritual evil, but a physical evil.
Early in the Holocaust, various young German men were ordered to kill Jews with bullets. But the Nazis found a problem with this: the scale of the murder was very expensive both in material terms (bullets were expensive!) and emotional terms (reportedly ordering young men to commit mass murder was emotionally harmful to them).
Killing Jews Efficiently
So the Nazis had a problem. How to kill Jews more efficiently?
After bullets, they tried trucks with no exhaust pipes (the exhaust was piped into the rear where Jews were contained). But it was a hassle to load the bodies in, drive around for a while, and then pull the bodies out. Fuel was expensive!
There were – and these remain visible at Auschwitz today – small rooms where a small group of Jews were confined in an airtight space, and left with no oxygen. But this was a slow process, and pulling the dead Jews out of the rooms was hard, because the rooms necessarily needed to be small and confined.
This subsequently led to the development of chemicals like Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers. The gas chambers were the industrialised Final Solution: a mechanised method to mass murder millions. Initially, gas chambers were relatively small rooms, before being scaled up to integrate with the crematoriums for burning corpses. Industrialised solutions for the physical challenges of killing Jews as quickly as possible.
This was, I think, what then Cardinal Ratzinger was referring to when he spoke of the dehumanisation of numbers: rather than considering each human to be a precious, loved and loving individual, the twin evils of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism, both arose from a desire to strip away the individuality of humanity, and to replace them with mere numbers.
Netflix’s Operation Finale
Re-watching the Netflix movie Operation Finale on the weekend, I was reminded of this coldness of Auschwitz: there are various shots in the movie which show mass murder. You can see the limp bodies piled in the back of a truck. You can see the Jews standing in a pit ready to be shot (it is more efficient to kill Jews in their future mass graves – no need to move the dead bodies!). But the emotional power of those images of mass murder pale in contrast to the emotional power of individual murder: of a young woman called Fruma.
Fruma was a sister. Fruma was a daughter. Fruma was a carer. Fruma was made in the image of God.
Her slaughter is powerful and devastating to see because she was not a number.
Fruma is a face. Fruma is a story. Fruma is a memory. Fruma is an individual.
That is what, I think, then-Cardinal Ratzinger meant when he spoke about the devil’s efforts to dehumanise through the use of numbers – of stripping humans of the beauty of their individuality, the beauty of their stories, and the beauty of their relationships to each other.
Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:26-27 NIVUK