Nora Gomringer answers

Is it naive to believe in human goodness?

Nora Gomringer (Image: Judith Kinitz)

Not long ago my mother and I visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp outside Hannover. It was a fine, cold, snow-free winter's day. As dusk began to fall, I walked –almost alone – around the grounds; we had previously become acquainted with the topography through the Documentation Center's exhibits. They cover the history of this expansive site, its various uses over the years, personal tragedies, supply logistics, and the construction of its barracks, along with its liberation and institutionalization as an official memorial. All these things are rivetingly brought together in this impressive structure made of dense concrete that cuts out all sound and external visual distractions, focusing the mind exclusively on this location as if it were an intarsia.

In the grounds outside, mass graves containing 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 and 5,000 bodies are marked by flat-topped mounds of earth. There are also inscriptions in stone as reminders for visitors: Here lie 5,000 dead. Between 1941 and 1945, an estimated 70,000 people lost their lives here. The wind moans and murmurs. It is never silent. Nearby the trees creak. As a visitor you find yourself sighing, shivering, in a state of intense unease.

The Dutch girls, Anne Frank – whom I believe to be the most famous woman writer in literary history, as I have often said – and her sister Margot, died of typhus at this place. There were difficulties getting supplies to the camp, particularly during its final months – it was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945 – leading to 10,000 people perishing from malnutrition, diphtheria and typhus.

When the fences were cut down and the gates opened, and the camp's prisoners declared "free," many of them were too sick to leave. For days, even weeks, they remained at the site of their dehumanization, making completely unexpected, unprecedented demands of their liberators. Having received initial emergency relief, the emancipated inmates had to be fed and tended at the camp before they were able to embark on the long journeys that lay ahead. I stood there in my warm winter jacket, gazing at the memorial stones which, if at all, only marked the actual locations of the graves by chance, and froze, froze to my bones. How must the people back then have frozen, for months at a time, in thin linen garments, only covered occasionally by an additional coat allocated to them – more than likely the coat of a victim who had already died. The Nazis constantly posted doctors and observers to the camp. Some of them were described not as evil but as naive, taking the same interest in the inmates as they would in laboratory animals, brainwashed into believing the Nazis' theories of race, their brutal aberrations and the consequences for both the researchers and their subjects.

As a youth I felt more despair when I watched clips about the camp's liberation, filmed by a team from the BBC. I remember because the piles of bodies in the black and white footage exerted a child-like fascination on me, as did the pictures of the country folk who had been ordered to the camp by way of punishment. To me the scene looked like it had been staged for a movie, with all the extras and props on show. I was scarcely able to comprehend what I was seeing.

How so many of the locals protested that they knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about what had transpired at this place, although people in rural villages are often said to know everything about neighbors who live kilometers away.

The BBC films still upset me today, when the cameras focus not on the corpses, the death, or the shocked, ashamed, silent and bewildered crowds of observers but on the young soldiers. Men, scarcely 20 years old, scarcely men, most of them facing a camera for the very first time, uttering for the first time words that still testify to their torn reactions today, their intensely disturbed states of mind.

Having reached this place, they were made to believe that human goodness is a mere construct, a desire formulated by a collective, the hope of hopes. People might be able to act blind, deaf and unmoved, but they cannot simulate being naive, if naive is understood to mean innocent, delicate, with untainted eyes and sensibilities, pink. Naivety is a privilege and privileges are granted.

People, I would stress, are entitled to be naive until their moment of realization that human goodness is no more than an aspiration. It is their legitimate right to have their views shaped by their assumptions. Afterwards they need to act according to their consciences and on the basis of their newfound knowledge. Their awareness of the consequences of their actions becomes an interface between them and their behavior. They acquire this awareness from their experiences, observations and their compassion. We are fascinated by the young because their naivety is still acceptable. It is a collective, tacit permission that they have been granted. But is forfeited over time.

Nora Gomringer, who has dual Swiss and German nationality, lives in the German town of Bamberg. She writes, composes music, explains, works as a theatre prompt and loves poetry.

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