by Adriel Borshansky ’15
I parked my car outside of Buchenwald concentration camp late in the afternoon and took a deep breath. This time, having already visited Dachau, I was more ready to actually absorb historical information about the atrocities that occurred in this space. I opened up the audio guide that I had downloaded to my phone and began walking towards the prison gate.
Before the gate were two office buildings where SS administration used to be housed. My audio guide spoke about the life of the first SS commandant to be in charge of the camp—a man named Karl-Otto Koch. Apparently, Koch was known as one of the most inhumane commandants of all the Nazi concentration camps. I learned that Koch grew up in a lower class family and received a poor education; he was a prisoner-of-war in the First World War; and he was starting a family while he was rising the ranks in 1937 to become the SS commandant in Buchenwald.
Hearing personal details of a Nazi perpetrator in Buchenwald took me by surprise. I had learned about the lives of particular Holocaust survivors, and was actually reading Viktor Frankl’s detailed survivor account at the time of my visit. But if I had to try to picture a perpetrator at that point, I would just have imagined a kind of faceless evil. I suddenly felt that I could really imagine Karl-Otto Koch. A tormented, sick, broken man no doubt. I wished that his life had somehow taken a different course. I wondered about the many others who chose to lead concentration camps too. What was it in their lives and in their minds that pushed them to make such evil choices? Who were these people?
After Buchenwald, I have reflected more on that particular moment of the tour. It is striking to me that I had never really considered the lives of Nazi perpetrators, as if they weren’t people at all. But as I become more curious about Koch and others, I have also noticed internal voices of resistance to this newfound curiosity. One voice is scared of where my curiosity might lead me, and another voice is telling me to be ashamed. These internal tensions have shown me a side of curiosity that I have never really faced as directly.
My voice of fear is concerned that I’m on a slippery slope towards too much sympathy for an evil man. I remember an anecdote from Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl writes about discovering, years after the Holocaust, that one of the most brutal Nazis (a man who headed a massive euthanasia program in Austria) turned out to be known in Siberia as an incredibly warm and compassionate man later on in his life. Frankl wants to show us that people can reinvent themselves for the better even when they have committed mass atrocities. Although I find his redemptive take to be humanizing and inspiring, I am scared to have that kind of mercy myself. If Koch’s life is interesting to me, then when might that interest turn to empathy, and when might that empathy turn to forgiveness, and when might that forgiveness turn to indifference, and even a willingness to forget?
Apart from these fears, a part of me feels guilty and ashamed for being curious in the first place. I’m ashamed that after visiting Dachau and Buchenwald, of all of the things to be thinking about, the lives of perpetrators are on my mind. Millions of people—including some of my ancestors—were tortured, murdered, and erased because of the brutality of men like Koch. And yet Koch gets to have his name and his life described on an audio guide decades later. It feels like a betrayal of the memory of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust to care about the lives of their murderers. And even more than that, I have this sense that there is a proper way for a Jew to mourn the Holocaust, and that humanizing a Nazi perpetrator in any way is a dereliction of my duty as a part of the Jewish people. Seeing perpetrators as humans and seeing the possibility of redemption in them feels . . . traitorous.
I cannot help but notice how relevant my feelings of shame and fear might be to other situations of conflict. I was given snippets of biographical details, and the opportunity to understand more about one man, and I was terrified of doing so. And all of these emotions came up viscerally for me despite being two generations removed from the Holocaust. I can only imagine how those voices would be amplified for people engaging in dialogue in the midst of an active situation of violent conflict.
It is common for educators and practitioners in the field of conflict resolution to talk about the importance of curiosity. “Listen to the other, suspend your own judgment, and be curious,” we say. There is an embedded assumption that being curious is always neutral and always productive. In reality, though, there are situations in which being curious about someone can feel like a form of disloyalty to one’s group (and even oneself) or a way of legitimizing the other. Voices of shame and fear are very real, and may be powerful impediments to curiosity. When we receive resistance for asking someone to be curious, and it seems like they cannot or they won’t, we need to be able to ask ourselves what might be inhibiting them. And at the very least, a person who doesn’t exhibit the kind of curiosity that we encourage should not be seen as having failed.
I don’t anticipate that the phrase “be curious” will fade from my list of mantras anytime soon. But my experience in Buchenwald, and my brief encounter with Koch, reminded me how fraught, strange, and terrifying curiosity really can be.