‘Indifference to Injustice is the Gate to Hell’

‘Memorial to the Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust’, 1990. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_Appellate_courhouse_Holocaust_Memorial.jpg

On the façade of the New York Appellate Division, First Department Courthouse in Manhattan, there is a Holocaust memorial sculpture carved into a column of Carrara marble, a representation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, based in part on an aerial photograph taken by the 15th Air Force, United States Army Air Forces. I discovered it quite by accident, on one of my usual long strolls in the city, often ending by stopping at a park to jot down my thoughts. The park in this instance was Madison Square Park, a green expanse popular with locals enjoying an al fresco lunch, as well as with tourists taking snaps of the nearby Flatiron Building.

‘Memorial to Victims of the Injustice of the Holocaust’, a sculpture by New York artist Harriet Feigenbaum on the Madison Avenue side of the courthouse at E. 25th Street, was installed in 1990. The artist worked from ‘photographs of the death houses and a rendering of the main camp at Auschwitz in Poland, drawn by a prison inmate in 1944’, she told the New York Times in 1988. The piece had the impact on me probably intended by makers of public art: I was startled, then riveted, then overcome. I visited the sculpture many times afterward, a regular feature of my walks, a pilgrimage to honor the memory of the dead as well as those who sacrificed their lives to stop the genocide.

The Holocaust was ‘the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jewish men, women and children by the Nazi regime and its collaborators’[1], as well as ‘at least five million prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other victims’.[2] Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945, commemorated in the UK and Europe as Holocaust Memorial Day. Over a million people[3] were murdered there, the vast majority Jews who had been deported from countries all over Europe in furtherance of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ to annihilate the Jewish population.

Auschwitz was only one of a network of 44,000 concentration, forced labor and death camps and other incarceration sites in the Nazi-occupied countries. Dachau was the first such camp, opened in Germany in 1933 to intern political prisoners. It ‘served as a model for all later concentration camps and as a “school of violence” for the SS men under whose command it stood.’ [4] Over a twelve-year period, the camp imprisoned political opponents of the Nazi regime, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, ‘asocials’ and repeat criminal offenders.[5] The prisoners were used for forced labour. German doctors performed medical experiments on others. Over 200,000 people were detained there; of those, at least 28,000 died. American forces liberated the camp on 29 April 1945. ‘As Allied units approached, at least 25,000 prisoners from the Dachau camp system were force marched south or transported away from the camps in freight trains. During these so-called death marches, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of starvation, hypothermia, or exhaustion. … In early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had been sent on the death march.’[6]

Photograph of the Dachau Concentration Camp circa May 1945, taken by the author’s father, Flight Officer Eugene L. Solomon. On the reverse, he wrote: ‘moat, barbed wire, high tension wire, living quarters.’

In October’s post for this blog, I wrote about my father’s service as a Jewish B-17 pilot with the 384th Bomb Group, stationed at Grafton Underwood. In a 2006 family interview, he described a mission in May of 1945, when he and his crew flew to an air station outside Munich to pick up supplies ‘destined for Dachau concentration camp.’ They then drove to the camp. When they went through the gates, they saw these ‘thousand men in striped uniforms.’ They were ‘walking bones – their eyes were sunk into their heads, and they would look at you and … mumble and try to talk. We were just stunned … looking at these people that are literally walking dead.’ He went into the commanding officer’s office and found in his desk ‘a series of little insignias. One was a gas mask.’ The crew walked through the gas chamber and saw ‘pipes with the false spray heads.’

As you walked in there were tons of shoes and clothing and all and you would see piles of adult shoes and piles of children’s shoes … when you came out the other end, you walked into the crematorium—there were three crematoriums there. There was a table there with a grinder, so if any of the bones weren’t completely demolished, they would put them into that grinder and grind them up and there was a basket there to catch it. And then they would take all of the ashes and bring it in the back. There was a huge field back there where for several years they were dumping ashes. … You’re twenty years old and you see that, it really shakes you up. And you don’t know what to say to the people. You don’t speak their language … You go through the barracks where they had nothing but a flat board where like nine people would sleep, and then there would be another deck and another deck, and they would crowd them in there. … There were thousands of US troops in there, and they brought food in. … We brought an airplane full of supplies. … There were men, there were women, there were Jews, there were Gentiles, there were gypsies. There were all kinds of people. [My mother asks, off camera: ‘Children’?] ‘Oh, yeah, there were children. … It was a terrifying sight.

It’s not hard to conclude that what my father and his crew witnessed, the horrific aftermath of unspeakable acts, was in fact, as the Holocaust memorial sculptor back in Manhattan saw it, ‘the gate to hell.’ If it was evil that conceived of and created this hell, it was indifference that facilitated it, and all the genocides afterward.

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and in genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The theme for this year’s remembrance is ‘One Day’. As Holocaust survivor Iby Knill said: ‘You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.’ 

You can find resources on genocide and the Holocaust at the American Library and check out e-books in our collection here. The Imperial War Museum’s Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme collaborated with writers to create an online exhibit, One Story, Many Voices, featuring the accounts of survivors. Other resources are available on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of-the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution.

[2] The National WWII Museum https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/holocaust.

[3] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/auschwitz.

[4] Dachau Memorial site https://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/en/.

[5] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau

[6] USHMM https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/dachau.

3 Comments

Filed under American History, Holocaust Remembrance, World War 2

3 responses to “‘Indifference to Injustice is the Gate to Hell’

  1. Richard Middleton

    Excellent post; very thought provoking. Thank you Suzanne. Richard

    Richard Middleton

    +44 (0)7757348110 01603 620010

    >

  2. Pingback: We’ll Meet Again: A Scholar’s Farewell | American Library

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