August 2013

Essays

The view from Buchenwald

By John Bryson
The view from Buchenwald
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

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Tim Minchin in rehearsals at the Sydney Theatre company. © Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Minchin plays it straight

The musical funnyman returns home

Fracking and food security

The Greens chase the farming vote

Wilfred Burchett in Vietnam, c.1965. © The Wilfred Burchett Estate

Wilfred Burchett and the KGB

The legendary war correspondent was in the pay of the KGB

Censorship, sex and scandal in Singapore

For the city-state’s academics, freedom of speech is a sensitive subject


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of red-paint hands on Yuendumu Police Station

The death of Kumanjayi Walker

On the shooting in Yuendumu and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Morrison’s power without purpose

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

Portrait of Zoe Daniel

Independents and the balance of power

The federal election may hinge on a new crossbench of professional women in wealthy inner-city seats and a rural revolt against the Nationals

Photo of Marind community members sharing dreams of being eaten by oil palm

The psychic terror wrought by palm-oil production

How oil-palm plantations have uprooted the lives and dreams of a Papuan community


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?