Thursday, February 14, 2008

Recognizing The Face of Evil

Can we recognize the face of evil when we see it? We are conditioned to recognize the evil nature of a Hitler or a Ben Laden or a Caligula or a Nero, but can we pick hidden evil when we encounter it? In Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's main character's evil transformed a painting while hiding the character's true nature from others. So if we come face to face with the basest nature of man, can we pick out those people by sight? Unfortunately not.

Today I discovered two photo albums on the
Holocaust museum website. One album, called Auschwitz album, contains 192 photographs from 1944, picturing Jews from Subcarpathian Rus, many picturing men, women and children moments before being herded to their deaths into the gas chambers. There they stand or sit, bewildered, in shock, perhaps unaware of their immediate fate.

In grim contrast is a 1944
photo album created by SS-Obersturmführer Karl Höcker [alternately spelled Hoecker], the adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Sturmbannführer Richard Baer. In a neat grid of two columns with neat handwriting, the 116 pictures include images of a Nazi officers’ hunting retreat, Höcker playing with his dog, SS officers relaxing with women and a baby, members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) and men enjoying cups of blueberries and accordion music, Höcker lighting Christmas tree candles, and officers socializing together. Among the men in the pictures is a smiling, benign-looking Dr. Joseph Mengele, who history has nicknamed “The Angel of Death.”

History tells us that
Mengele was responsible for the selection of who lived and who died and enforcing horrendous atrocities —sterilization, freezing, infecting people with malaria and typhus, giving them mustard gas, sea water, phosphorus, and poison. But as pictured in the album, Mengele stands laughing and enjoying the company of the people he knew, while train loads of humans were being systematically catalogued, selected and sent to their deaths. Monster that he was, he appears almost friendly—death hiding behind a smile.Did he use his charming smile to lull his victims into a sense of security?

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock understood that everyone has a propensity for evil—we all carry dark secrets. Speaking in a filmed interview, he once talked of enjoying using seeming cultured, harmless people threatening the safety of ordinary people in seemly “safe” situations. In these two Holocaust albums, we can see through the impartial eyes of the camera lens that seemingly ordinary evil.

I found viewing the albums a truly chilling experience.

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