On this day in 1945 and 1961 two events began. The link between them was the Holocaust. April 11th 1945 saw US troops liberating Buchenwald and April 11th 1961 was the first day of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel.
We’ll start with Eichmann, as he was the transporter administrator in charge of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Years later at his trial, Eichmann would claim, as others had before him, that he was only following orders. He acknowledged that he had been the indirect cause of millions of deaths, but …”I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors.” When he was presented with the evidence that in 1945 he had said “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He admitted saying it, but explained that he had only been talking about enemies of the Reich. Given that the only deaths that were directly on his conscience were those of Jews and others who were transported over Europe to concentration and extermination camps, it’s pretty clear that his definitions of “enemies of the Reich” was pretty broad and that far from just following orders, he obviously took great pleasure in following those orders. There is more proof of this at the end of the war. He had been in Hungary since 1944, sending the Jewish population to death camps, but in early 1945, when it was becoming clear that the tide had turned against Germany, Himmler sent orders to stop the extermination and to destroy all records of the Final Solution. The man who only followed orders, did not follow this one. He felt that Himmler was being weak and carried on sending as many Jews to their death as he could, in direct defiance of orders.
Hannah Arendt reported on the trial for The New Yorker and described Eichmann as the living embodiment of “the banality of evil”. This was because his character showed no real signs of antisemitism, neither was he noticeably psychologically damaged. He was a man who had been ambitious and wanted to do well in his career. The fact that doing well-meant facilitating the murder of millions was just one of those things. Of course Eichmann was antisemitic, everything pointed to this, not least 1950s recordings that were recently released by the German Federal Archive, where Eichmann boasted that he was no ordinary follower of rules, that he had helped formulate the rules, he was part of the process and an idealist. His banality was an easy mask to put on when his own life was on the line.
The mask was superfluous. He was executed in 1962.
Buchenwald was a concentration camp and not an extermination camp. Nevertheless it saw plenty of death and murder in its history.
Its gates bore the slogan Jedem Das Seine, which more or less means “Everyone gets what he deserves”. For the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists, political opponents and western Allied POWs, death or as close to death as possible was what they deserved.
Despite the lack of “death facilities” of the roughly 260,000 inmates over its period of use in WWII, about 60,000 died. Many were killed by the policy of Vernichtung durch Arbeit – extermination through labour – there were over 8,000 shootings, 1,100 hangings and 13,500 who died as a result of evacuation transports. There were also medical experiments. “Vaccines” against typhus killed 154. They also experimented with lethal doses of poisons, which generally killed anyone tested. There were mass murders of Soviet POWs and day-to-day sadism on a level that most of us, thankfully, cannot imagine.
Among the liberators of 1945 was the broadcaster Ed Murrow. His radio report of what they encountered was broadcast on 15th April by CBS and brought the holocaust to the homes of millions of Americans. I’ll leave this journey into the dark side of humanity with an extract from Murrow’s broadcast. He says it far better than I ever could:
“I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.
They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more. Nothing about who these men were, what they had done, or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totalled 242. 242 out of 1,200, in one month.
As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.”
More joint birthdays with a vague connection today. The people in question are Oleg Cassini and Ethel Kennedy. I don’t think I’m the only one to make the immediate connection, but I also know that many of you will be all “who?” and “what now?”, so I’ll put
you out of your misery quick smart. Oleg Cassini was a designer who started out as a sketcher for Jean Patou, then worked under Edith Head in Hollywood before being hired as a costume designer in his own right. He married Gene Tierney, who would only wear her husband’s designs on-screen and so he began to really make a name for himself. And this connects him to Ethel Kennedy, how? Well, in the early 1960s, his designs caught the eye of a certain Jacqueline Kennedy and from then on he was a huge big ole cheese in the fashion world.
Ethel, is of course the wife and widow of Robert Kennedy. She was married to him for 18 years and had 11 children. ELEVEN! Sweet mother of god, there’s being a serious Catholic and then there’s being pregnant for most of your fertile life like a great big brood mare! Despite being pregnant nearly all the time, she and Bobby did find time to entertain and their home guested the great, the good, the beautifully ordinary and all those in between. She has not remarried, remains active in a supportive role in politics and probably has about ten million grandchildren by now.
Cassini died in 2006 at the grand old age of 92. He died wealthy and left a fuck of a mess behind him, including a secret wife, people fighting over his money and lawsuits bouncing around like
mental little bombs as everyone in his family started fighting for a cut of his money.
That’s unlikely to happen to Ethel, given that she’s proper posh, even if the Kennedy family are a bit of a rum lot at times, they are American royalty. She’ll have sorted out the will years ago.
So! Happy birthday, Oleg, you really hit pay dirt with Jackie and fair fucks to you, you did design some gorgeous frocks and stuff. And happy birthday Ethel. I’m glad your womb got a break at last and, well I know you must be some feisty old broad, but I’m awfully glad I never followed your example.