I know men and women who, when standing under the shower, suddenly imagine it to be the outlet in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. They are jammed in the shower with hundreds of other naked men and women. Intimate body contact is unavoidable. Someone begins to scream.
Sobbing can be heard – little children to their parents. ‘What’s happening daddy? I can’t breathe.’
‘It’s alright my darling. Just remember we have always loved you.’
It’s too late to fight or even struggle. One wants to live, but maybe the end is preferable. The gentle hiss of gas begins. Hands reach up trying to block the jets. Panic sets in. The noise is deafening, the jostling of bodies unable to escape causes fear to spread to everybody. People lose control of their bowels. Slowly the panic ebbs and peace sets in. It’s over.
But not in my imagination. I know it wasn’t quick. If exposure is slow, such as the gas diffusing through a packed room, it took a while. Death, from Zyklon B, preceded by very painful convulsions, could take 20 minutes or longer. When used on Death Row in the US, times as long as eleven minutes were recorded. That’s a long time to prepare oneself or a child for the worst. For the first time, I wonder why they used a cyanide compound in Zyklon B. Carbon monoxide would have been cheaper, more effective and less painful. No convulsions – just gentle sleep and in that moment of wondering I have reduced genocide to an intellectual exercise.
This is how it works. Someone asks the question, ‘What are we going to do with Jews?’
It was a routine day at the office for a Nazi, when he dealt with that question. Can I imagine being a perpetrator? I just did, when I asked the question about Zyklon B and carbon monoxide.
The planning process happened in January 1942 in a beautiful villa on the Wannsee, outside Berlin. The house still stands and is now a museum to that conference. The state needed to know that its various agencies were on board and that they would commit to the genocide.
The so-called ‘Wannsee Conference’ was opened by Reinhard Heydrich, who had already decided the parameters for the mass murder of Jews. He defined, what was a Jew, what exceptions were to be made to Jewishness and that, in the first instance (he still needed to build the infrastructure), Jews would be transported to the East where they would carry out forced labour.
He knew this labour would result in the death of the workers, due to the extremity of the work conditions. He openly spoke about the murder of the Jews. We know all this because an American soldier found a protocol copy of the Wannsee Conference in a drawer. It was the one that didn’t get destroyed in 1945 when people were covering their tracks. But for that copy, we wouldn’t know there had been a conference or its outcomes.
I have read the protocol. Heydrich mentions a ‘final solution.’ Historians assume the conference members understood what the final solution meant. They imagined death in a gas chamber – not with horror – but with satisfaction.
Get off the S-Bahn at Wannsee and walk the few kilometres along the lake. You will pass the Liebermann House, with a collection of his impressionist paintings. Then arrive at the villa, where the conference took place. Look around. Be brave. Go in.
As a writer, you can safely imagine the dark side.
You don’t have to live the risk.
In my Berlin novel, The Last Stop, my protagonist comes to terms with a planned murder.
‘He kept listening to it, discussing it, listening to others discussing it, and soon daftness disappeared, and lunacy became reason. That’s how propaganda works. If one tells the same lies often enough, one’s brain accepts them as the truth. He had undergone the process.’