TELEVISION / The ordinary men who caused extraordinary pain

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The Independent Culture
For the Russian soldiers liberating Auschwitz the first real intimation of the scale of the crime they had uncovered lay in the camp's storerooms. There, piled in heaps, they found the residue of whole communities - shoes, false teeth, shaving bru shes, spectacles. That sifted humanity is still, because of its mute absence, one of the most sinister images of the Holocaust, unbearably explicit about what had happened.

It would be difficult to imagine less innocent witnesses than front-line Russian troops in 1944. As one of them pointed out in Liberation (C4), Rex Bloomstein's powerful contribution to the commemoration of the discovery of the death camps, they had seenevery variety of horror the war had to offer by the time the front reached poland. They had, though he didn't say this, contributed new horrors of their own. But even these troops were stunned by the revelations of Majdanek, by the implications of thoseorderly piles.

The intimacy of the objects, all the humble necessaries of life, testifies to the violent end of need. They crowd whole populations into a tiny room, and the casual indifference of their storage makes it clear that no one is expected to return to claim them. In their combination of identity (all shoes look the same) and subtle individuality (all shoes are moulded by their wearer) they model the burial pits outside, the whole terrible rag and bone yard in which everything has become scrap, to be sorted and consigned; the distillation of a multitude into its elements.

"Using industrial methods to destroy innocent people - one cannot get over it, one cannot forget that," said one vasily petrenko, recalling his arrival in the camp. Unfortunately, while that may be true for the eyewitnesses , it isn't so for people as a whole, either through wilfulness or ignorance. Werner ellman, a german who served with the american army, recalled entering mauthausen, one of the most terrible of the labour camps. "I did not want to believe this," he remembered, echoing an incapacity shared by other soldiers. But his brother, who fought for the Americans in the Pacific, still refuses to believe, sheltering beneath equivocations and excuses.

The british and american troops were less prepared for what they found, less inured to cruelties visited upon civilians. They knew the accidental terrors of war, not this mass production of tragedy. But, as Liberation reminded you, there could be no preparation for such knowledge anyway. If the programme was a little too blithe about the degree of allied intelligence about the camps, it was true to the mental shock of finding propaganda so grotesquely exceeded. Entering one camp, british troops found pits full of bodies, bodies that moved in an awful simulation of life as decomposition shifted the weight.

Bob Daniell, a bluff man whose emotion had been suppressed into a persistent cough, a thickness in the throat he couldn't clear, remembered having to steady men close to panic with fear, men who had lived in combat for months. In his case, the horror wasstill in progress: investigating the sound of revolver fire, he rounded a barrack to discover six Hitler Youth tormenting some inmates who had become tangled in the wire. They were shooting them in the genitals for fun, laughing at the result. Daniell killed four of them, a summary execution that was surprisingly the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere the rage was controlled, the guards rounded up into burial details and, in one case, required to stand before the newsreel cameras and give their names and ages. Perhaps this was more frightening still, a parade of ordinary young people, nervous and awkward, faces quite blank. They weren't rare or special then, and they wouldn't be today.