by Kimberly A. Reid
As debris settled from the last battles of World War II, citizens across Germany woke up to a horrifying reality: Not only did the war claim the lives of many of their siblings, parents, and children, but the Nazis also murdered about 6 million Jews and 9 million Roma, Sinti, disabled, and Slavic people.
For 15-year-old Hans-Wilhelm Kelling, the news was devastating. Years of propaganda assured him that Germany only bombed military targets. “I learned after the war [that] that’s not true,” says Kelling. “It was a rude awakening.”
Seventy years later, Kelling, now a BYU German professor, is still piecing together exactly what happened in his beloved country during those dark years, seeking answers both personal and professional through scholarly inquiry. His latest research delves into the transformation of average female citizens into harsh prison guards.
Researching the writings of those on the other side of the fence from Kelling’s guards, BYU Italian associate professor Ilona Klein says the voices of the Holocaust continue to captivate us today because they teach us what it means to be human. Klein teaches a class on the Holocaust—or, as it’s called in Hebrew, the Shoah—that focuses on autobiographical testimonials of survivors. “It’s a class that allows us to probe the horrible depths of what humans are capable of and to probe the beautiful strength that humans are capable of,”she says.
Both Kelling and Klein admit how painful studying the Holocaust can be. But, as Klein says, “It’s important that WWII not be forgotten. It’s important that we keep teaching this. It’s difficult to teach; it’s difficult to learn; but the potential of genocide happening again is still there, and so it needs to be told.”
The “Ordinary” Guard
Kelling learned the true history of Germany’s involvement in WWII little by little. When he discovered that an estimated 5,000 women guards worked in concentration camps alongside the men, he was shocked. He began to wonder: “Who were these women? Why did they want to perform such heinous duties?” Through his research, he began to piece together a picture of the female guards.
First, women guards usually came from the lower classes, who often resorted to jobs requiring manual labor. So when the Third Reich needed women, it was an easy sell: nice working hours, attractive uniforms, housing, and opportunities for advancement—often at quadruple the pay and for what seemed like a quarter of the work. Unfortunately, many of the women didn’t understand what the job actually entailed until it was too late.
The pressure to be cruel sank in quickly—women learned to scream at and beat prisoners within days. If you didn’t comply, you were severely punished. “If you worked in a camp that was reasonably organized and you did not obey orders,” says Kelling, “then you were transferred to some of the camps in Poland where criminal acts were part of the daily routine.”
Kelling points out that there were three different types of female guards. The first were women who probably would have committed crimes even if they weren’t guards. The second group, which research suggests was the largest, were females who didn’t care about their work or the prisoners, following orders mechanically and doing the minimum amount of work required to avoid punishment. The third group was very small, comprising women who had moments of compassion on the prisoners and genuinely seemed disturbed by the events happening around them—but with the pressure to perform, they too enforced the rules and punished offenders.
For Kelling, these groups raise the question Are there people who are predestined to be cruel? His response: “We all have that in us. We all have a side that we need to be aware of. If we are faced with certain situations, we wonder how we will act.”
In 1945 26-year-old Primo Levi was one of 450 displaced Italian Jews who survived the Nazi concentration camps. Although some Holocaust survivors waited until the sunset of their lives to write their stories—and others found the experience too painful to ever share—Levi felt the urgency to record his story right away, meticulously documenting every memory of Auschwitz in crisp detail.
Levi’s autobiography, Se Questo È un Uomo (literally If This Is a Man, but often known in English as Survival in Auschwitz), is among the works Klein uses in her class on the voices and legacy of the Shoah. One of the questions the class tries to answer is What does it mean to be human? “For every chapter read, you as a reader have to pause and ask yourself if these Jewish slaves are still human—if they can see themselves as human; if the Nazis who were perpetrating these kind of crimes—if they are human,” says Klein. “You ask yourself, ‘What defines human?’ And that’s why the Italian title is so powerful, If This Is a Man. What constitutes being a man?”
Statistically, Jewish camp survivors represent only about 5 percent of the people who were captured. “We remember their voices and, through them, we remember the 95 percent who never made it out of the camps,” explains Klein. “I tell my students we’re giving a voice to the voiceless.”
To muse on the definition of man by studying the Shoah can be emotionally difficult, which is why Klein’s course also covers the issue of forgiveness from several viewpoints. “The only way to work through feelings is to walk through them,” says Klein. “They cannot be bypassed right or left; they cannot be jumped over.”
Klein says that although history doesn’t quite repeat itself exactly, it can, and does, rhyme. “The people who conceived of this evil have the same brain we have, have the same knowledge we have,” she says. “We have to be very careful not to let history continue to rhyme.”