August 2013

Essays

The view from Buchenwald

By John Bryson
Seeing is believing

A gaunt man stood inside the wire caging of a Buchenwald compound, in prisoners’ striped pantalon and jacket, hair cropped to baldness, maybe in his 20s but seeming immeasurably old. A section of wire fence lay open, torn down by a US tank. From behind him prisoners ran to spill through, waving, shouting, some falling, spent with the effort. All were stick figures, withered, faces the shape of the skull beneath. 

The still man seemed to be watching, with nothing as human as fear or joy in his eyes. He was vacant. Whatever had happened to him, or to others around him, had so damaged his humanness as to extinguish his need for reaction to anything the present held for him.

The camera moved inside the stockade, leaving him behind. My mother and I, inside a Melbourne Movietone News theatrette in April 1945, were carried on along the paths between buildings, through dormitories of endless sleeping benches, where those too weak to rise made their effort to smile and wave, into the crematoriums, over the burial pits stacked with crowds of naked cadavers, more piled onto the trays of parked lorries, all with teeth exposed as if the horrors of their deaths could only be met with mad laughter. 

When the lights came up, my mother stubbed out her cigarette. She wanted to sit a while. She held my arm. My father was in the war somewhere to our north. I was ten. She trembled, and tears streaked her cheeks. She will have heard radio reports of the discovery of Buchenwald from the BBC or Ed Murrow, and determined that I should watch this. Newsreels were our most vivid news service. They ran for an hour, and repeated every hour, delivered to our cities four or five days after printing in London or Paris. 

She wore a brimmed bonnet pulled down to her eyes as if wishing not to be recognised. “You see?” she said. “You see?” Yes, here was my lesson: some people of the European world would visit these terrors on others who were Jews, or coloureds, or gypsies. She was a Polynesian lass so we were coloureds, and vulnerable to this.

Today, a web search on concentration camps shows several denialist publications. Of the most forthright, one is published by “White Pride Worldwide”, another by journalist Carolyn Yeager, of “The White Network”, whose thesis is that all Buchenwald footage was faked on the orders of Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley to justify US entry into the European war theatre. Yeager attacks survivor Elie Wiesel as a liar and trickster who was never at Buchenwald.

In 1987, a year after receiving his Nobel peace prize, Wiesel spoke at the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne. That evening, Penguin Books hosted a small dinner for him and his wife, Marion, in a private room at Mietta’s. Penguin folk were there, alongside Louise Adler, now of Melbourne University Press, with actor Max Gillies, and me. Wiesel was a lean man with a triangular face, quite like his young face in purported Holocaust photos, quiet and thoughtful, lacking any mannerisms I could think of as tricksterly. What deep hatreds would cause men to denounce him in the street, or cause the bigot Eric Hunt to assault him in a San Francisco hotel?

At university in the 1960s, I encountered my first Holocaust denialist, John Bennett, who enjoyed the fuss made by his pieces in the student journal. Denialism had been slow to follow World War Two. Was this because many of us had viewed the first Movietone News reports?

When the Movietone lights began to dim, my mother watched me, the better to judge how well I had learnt the lesson. Her mouth was firm, of a breadth that stretched to a wide smile in happier times. “I think,” she said, “we should watch it once more.”

John Bryson
John Bryson is an author and former lawyer. His books include Whoring Around and Evil Angels, which chronicled the story of Lindy Chamberlain’s trial for murder.

From the front page

Tudge and go

Is Morrison’s standing down of Alan Tudge a sign that he’s listening to women or watching the polls?

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Noel Pearson addresses the Queensland Media Club in Brisbane, 2017

The unhinged pursuit of profit is destroying us

To undo the worst of neoliberalism we need to target need, rather than race or identity

In This Issue

© David Fitzgerald

Iggy Azalea and hip-hop’s bikini wasteland

Can the Australian-born rapper shake off the stereotypes?

Stories We Tell’s Sarah Polley

‘Stories We Tell’, ‘Frances Ha’ and ‘Upstream Colour’

New films from Sarah Polley, Noah Baumbach and Shane Carruth

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane

Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

In praise of Tony Windsor

Fan mail for the former MP


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of coal for export, Newcastle, NSW

The fossil-fuel industry’s grip on Australian hearts and minds

Is there hope that public misconceptions of the importance of coal and gas can be overcome?

Image of Noel Pearson addresses the Queensland Media Club in Brisbane, 2017

The unhinged pursuit of profit is destroying us

To undo the worst of neoliberalism we need to target need, rather than race or identity

Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

The stunted country

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society


Online exclusives

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones