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A former white supremacist's. Journey from violent extremism to radical compasion.



Excerpted with the permission of Arsenal Pulp Press 

We passed through the gates that said “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which translated means “Work Will Set You Free”, and I was reminded of the cold, disconnected, gallows humor we had (in the Movement) when we would joke, “next time it’ll say ‘Nothing Will Set You Free’”. Thousands of miles away and dispassionate, my mind was capable of thinking these things so many years ago. But standing in the middle of this death camp, standing on the ground where it happened and feeling the place and its sorrow, it is hard imagining the state of mind that could come up with such unthinkable attempts at humor.

As we passed through the gates to where the prisoners quarters, Maria paused to point and explain where the camp orchestra used to play. The orchestra (and the swimming pool, theater etc.), to a denier were proof that Auschwitz was more like a holiday camp, all fun and games, and not a death camp. The reality is the orchestra was used to get the prisoners to march in time so they could be counted more easily. What else would you do with talented famous musicians who were imprisoned there for being Jewish?

(So many) different emotions were swirling around, and I was a little bit lost for words. Peter then asked the question... “What would you say to the little boy that’s a prisoner here?” I Thought deeply about how to reply to that question but no words came up, all the while holding direct eye contact with Maria. “I don’t know” I said, “how do you offer words of hope to someone whose situation is so utterly hopeless?” “That’s easy” Maria replied “I will remember you, I will not forget, and I will ensure you will not be forgotten”. As soon as I’d spoken that last word I felt a flood of emotions for over me as my eyes filled with tears. I could not see their pain until I could see my own. I could not feel their pain until I could feel my own. Unless one can hear and feel and connect to the harm that had been done, any attempt at an apology is meaningless.

Given the current climate in the world I think it’s important to remind ourselves, with a fresh perspective, what we as human beings are capable of and where ideologies of separation and of division eventually end up. Being in this place was a tragic reminder where this (sort of) ideology goes if left unchecked.

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