On the afternoon of January 27, 1945, Sergeant Vassili Krasnov of the Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division stood at the gates of Hell.
Beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding the enormous camp, he could see thin people in striped uniforms, walking slowly and approaching the fence apprehensively. Vassili held his rifle firmly with both hands and passed under the gate, raising his eyes to the metal sign above his head: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”. He looked carefully to the sides, checking for SS soldiers who might have been hiding in the guard towers.
“What is this place?” Vassili asked a thin girl who approached him with a hesitant step. She ignored his drawn weapon, reached out her hand, and carefully touched a finger to the red star emblem embroidered on his green uniform.
“Auschwitz,” she answered with a Polish accent, continuing to gently stroke the red star.
Only in the following days, as medical and food convoys entered the camp, would Vassili and his friends find out what happened behind those electric barbed wire fences, between May 1940 and January 27 1945, and those sights would shock them and the world from that day on.
How could the Holocaust have happened? Could it happen again? What must we do to ensure that Auschwitz never returns?
As a Jew who grew up in the State of Israel, the shadows of the Holocaust accompanied my childhood, in stories told by older survivors who carried tattooed numbers on their arms, asking us, the younger generation, to make sure it would never happen again.
Last week, in my newsletter about the American spirit, I asked what the American spirit means to you. As I read your opinions, I could notice the words Freedom, Hope, Peace,and the ability to protect yourself. None of these were present during the Holocaust. Which was when people needed them more than ever.
When I grew up and joined the army, I wanted to be strong, terribly powerful, so powerful that no one could ever harm us again. I commanded tanks and fired almost all possible weapons from rifles to machine guns to cannons, and never stopped practicing. I can say I never fired and hurt anyone, but I’m prouder to say that I never let anyone hurt me.
But I wanted to know more, and as the years went by, I studied psychology, trying to understand the human psyche, evil and kindness, why people killed each other, and how human beings could share their last piece of bread with strangers. I learned the power of social influence and incitement, and how devastating a group could be. In my next newsletter, I will write about one of the most famous social experiments. Still, even after reading so many books, I’m not sure I can understand the power of evil.
When I started my career as a writer, I wanted to write the story of different women in wartime and their struggles, American, British, Australian, from many countries, of many identities and skin colors. But it was clear to me that the first book would be dedicated to a Jewish girl and her struggle to escape the gates of Hell waiting for her at the Auschwitz concentration camp.