We are writers. Imagination is our most powerful gift. Imagine the impossible – being a Spitfire pilot in a dogfight, being your sister, especially if you don’t have a sister. Then you have to imagine her brother or sister, too, who isn’t you.
And you can safely imagine your dark side. Crime writers imagine the illegal, without fearing arrest. A vivid imagination keeps one out of trouble. You don’t have to live the risk of a bungee jumper or have the bravery of a gay man coming out to his family at Christmas.
I can imagine things too awful to contemplate, such as now, when I’m imagining a Christmas gift – a very special gift, given to the world Christmas 1941.
The German word for poison, is Gift. Exactly the same spelling and etymology, both words, English and German, come from the Low German, or Dutch word for ‘to give’.
To give a present – to give poison. Giftgas – poisonous gas, such as mustard gas or chlorine, used in the trench war of 1914-18. Gift – a poison or a present.
Hamlet knew! Claudius killed King Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear. Shakespeare continually illustrates that words can function as poison in the ear as well. As the ghost says in Act I, scene v, Claudius has poisoned “the whole ear of Denmark” with his words (I.v.36). The running imagery of ears and hearing serves as an important symbol of the power of words to manipulate the truth.
It’s easy when a gift doesn’t have to be a joyous event.
I know men and women who, when standing under the shower, suddenly imagine it to be the outlet in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. They are jammed in the shower with hundreds of other naked men and women. Intimate body contact is unavoidable. Someone begins to scream. Sobbing can be heard along with clueless questions of little children to their parents.
‘What’s happening daddy? I can’t breathe.’
‘It’s alright my darling. Just remember we have always loved you,’ comes the answer and a tight cuddle.
It’s too late to fight, or even struggle. One wants to live, but considering the terrible things going on around, maybe the end is acceptable. They have walked by the heaps of charred bodies bulldozed into a pit. Is death OK, after that view of death?
The gentle hiss of Giftgas begins. Hands reach up trying to block the jets. Panic sets in. The noise is deafening, the jostling of bodies unable to escape, causes fear to spread. They lose control as the gift wrecks the nervous system, causing them to piss, vomit on each other and defecate. Slowly the panic ebbs and peace sets in. It’s over.
But not in my imagination. I know the Gift wasn’t quick. If exposure is slow, such as the gas diffusing through a packed room, it took a while. Death, from Zyklon B, preceded by painful convulsions, could take 20 minutes or longer. When used to gas prisoners on Death Row in the US, in a small room, only one victim, times as long as eleven minutes were recorded. That’s a long time to prepare oneself or a child for the worst. For the first time I wonder why they used a cyanide compound in Zyklon B. Carbon monoxide would have been cheaper, more effective and less painful. No convulsions – just gentle sleep.
I’m going to guess the answer. Carbon monoxide leaves a period of several minutes, in which the victims can still reason and fight, scream, beat the walls of the van, as they did, when it was tried, by diverting exhaust gases into the chamber behind the driver. This upset the perpetrators and their henchmen. The fight for life distracted the driver. They quit after one journey.
With cyanide, there is no way back. By the time you realise, the nervous system is out of control and it is too late.
There probably is another reason I don’t know about, but in that moment of wondering why, I have reduced genocide to an intellectual exercise.
It was a day at the office for someone, when he dealt with that question. Can I imagine being a perpetrator? I just did, when I asked the question about Zyklon B and carbon monoxide.
This is how it works. Someone asked the question, ‘What are we going to do with the Jews?’ Genocide was a solution. That someone sat down and imagined mass murder, ignoring the moral implications. They probably called it ‘planning’.
This planning process happened just after Christmas – January 1942, in a beautiful villa on the Wannsee, outside Berlin. The house still stands and is now a museum to that planning conference. The state needed to know that its various institutions were on board, so that they would commit to their part in the genocide. No opting out, like the drivers.
The so-called ‘Wannsee Conference’ was opened by Reinhard Heyderich, who had already decided the parameters for the mass murder of Jews. He defined, what was a Jew, what exceptions were to be made to Jewishness and that, in the first instance (he still needed to build the infrastructure), Jews would be transported to the East where they would carry out forced labour. He knew this labour would result in the death of the workers, due to the extremity of the work conditions and because he didn’t plan to feed them. He openly spoke about the murder of the Jews. We know all this, because an American soldier found a protocol copy of the Wannsee Conference in a drawer. It was the one that didn’t get destroyed in 1945, when people were covering their tracks. But for that copy, we wouldn’t know there had been a conference, or its outcomes.
I have read the protocol. It is short – barely 1½ pages long, typed on a typewriter, well beyond its sell-by date. What did the typist say when she reached home that evening, when her husband, boyfriend or dad asked what sort of a day she had?
I know that in quiet moments, men imagined committing mass murder. Heyderich mentions a ‘final solution.’ Historians assume the conference members understood what the final solution meant. They imagined death in a gas chamber – not with horror – but with satisfaction. Suddenly, my dark-side imaginings seem sane!
I left the S-Bahn at Wannsee, and because I stood on the wrong side of the road waiting for the bus, I missed it. The next was in 20 minutes but at -15 deg, I figured it better to walk the few kilometres along the lake. I passed the Liebermann House, with a collection of his impressionist paintings. Worth a visit! He was a rich Jew, who died in 1935 and thus avoided deportation. Then I arrived at the villa where the conference took place. I look around, am brave, and go in.
The most awful part of the exhibition is the section on the ones who got away – that was pretty much all of them. A few died as the Russians advanced in 1945 but 90% lived out their lives, post-war, in peace, as respected members of the community, some practicing medicine. That was the State’s gift to men, who had put their imagination to the final test, then shrugged their shoulders and moved on, when it was advantageous to so do.
The state had sanctioned it and the state forgave it.
I wrote in my Berlin novel – The Last Stop.
‘He kept listening to it, discussing it, listening to others discussing it, and soon daftness disappeared and lunacy became reason. That’s how propaganda works. If one tells the same lies often enough, one’s brain accepts them as the truth. He had undergone the process.’
This process was the purpose of the Wannsee Conference and I just imagined, being there. A writer’s imagination can be a curse, as well as a gift.