Nearly 60 years ago last week, Auschwitz was liberated. On Jan. 27, 1945, four Russian soldiers rode into the camp. They seemed “wonderfully concrete and real,” remembered Primo Levi, one of the prisoners, “perched on their enormous horses, between the gray of the snow and the gray of the sky.” But they did not smile, nor did they greet the starving men and women. Levi thought he knew why: They felt “the shame that a just man experiences at another man’s crime, the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist.”
Nowadays, it seems impossible to understand why so few people, at the time of the Auschwitz liberation, even knew that the camp existed. It seems even harder to explain why those who did know did nothing. In recent years a plethora of respectable institutions — the Vatican, the U.S. government, the international Jewish community, the Allied commanders — have all been accused of “allowing” the Holocaust to occur, through ignorance or ill will or fear, or simply because there were other priorities, such as fighting the war.
We shake our heads self-righteously, certain that if we’d been there, liberation would have come earlier — all the while failing to see that the present is no different. Quite a lot has changed in 60 years, but the ways in which information about crimes against humanity can simultaneously be “known” and not known hasn’t changed at all. Nor have other interests and other priorities ceased to distract people from the feelings of shame and guilt they would certainly feel, if only they focused on them.
Look, for example, at the international reaction to a documentary, aired last Sunday night on the BBC. It described atrocities committed in the concentration camps of contemporary North Korea, where, it was alleged, chemical weapons are tested on prisoners. Central to the film was the testimony of Kwon Hyuk, a former administrator at a North Korean camp. “I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,” he said. “The parents, son and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save the kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.” The documentary also included testimony from a former prisoner, who says she saw 50 women die after being deliberately fed poison. And it included documents smuggled out of the country that seemed to sentence a prisoner to a camp “for the purpose of human experimentation.”
But the documentary was only a piece of journalism. Do we really know that it is true? We don’t. It was aired on the BBC, after all, an organization whose journalistic standards have recently been questioned. It was based on witness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. All kinds of people might have had an interest in making the film more sensational, including journalists (good for their careers) or North Korean defectors (good for their cause).
The veracity of the information has been further undermined by the absence of official confirmation. The South Korean government, which believes that appeasement of the North will lead to reunification, has already voiced skepticism about the claims: “We will need to investigate,” a spokesman said. The U.S. government has other business on the Korean Peninsula too. On Monday Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a group of Post journalists that he feels optimistic about the prospect of a new round of nuclear talks between North Korea and its neighbors. He didn’t mention the gas chambers, even whether he’s heard about them.
In the days since the documentary aired, few other news organizations have picked up the story either. There are other priorities: the president’s budget, ricin in the Senate office building, David Kay’s testimony, a murder of a high school student, Super Tuesday, Janet Jackson. With the possible exception of the last, these are all genuinely important subjects. They are issues people care deeply about. North Korea is far away and, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot we can do about it.
Later — in 10 years, or in 60 — it will surely turn out that quite a lot was known in 2004 about the camps of North Korea. It will turn out that information collected by various human rights groups, South Korean churches, oddball journalists and spies added up to a damning and largely accurate picture of an evil regime. It will also turn out that there were things that could have been done, approaches the South Korean government might have made, diplomatic channels the U.S. government might have opened, pressure the Chinese might have applied.
Historians in Asia, Europe and here will finger various institutions, just as we do now, and demand they justify their past actions. And no one will be able to understand how it was possible that we knew of the existence of the gas chambers but failed to act.