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Beating our swords into ploughshares

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A cold chill fell on her that seeped into her bones when she spent a night at the inn where Hitler slept. Dwor-Pomorski is located in the quaint countryside of Barwice. On a cultural camp in the town, she and her team had been lodged at the modest hotel of renaissance architecture nestled in the centre of a vast expanse of forest reserve and a lake.

“Hitler passed a night here.” The waiter had told them. A lanky white male; a little past teenage age with a mischievous grin. To press it in further, he added, “His room was exactly the one on top of yours,” motioning towards Ozioma. But Ozioma was no stranger to weird literature and the opportunity of this adventure, tickled her a bit.

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The ambience of Dwor-Pomorski still looked mostly pristine, and the trees wore a particularly fresh look as though recovering from the trauma they were put through during the holocaust. If the trunks could speak, Ozioma contemplated, they could tell how it was in those glory years. While she slept that night, she felt a strange sensation that seemed to suggest the ghost of the Fuhrer still hung within and paced around all night, in the very room just on top of hers.

Consequently, when the opportunity to visit the concentration camp beckoned, she hitched her back-pack. She remembered that quaint inn at Dwor-Pomorsky again. Hitler possibly may have slept there during his inspection tour of works at Nazi-occupied Poland, she imagined.

“Daddy,” she called, on her return, with a voice laden with emotion. She paused for a deep breath and appeared to be shaking her head momentarily on the phone. “Hm…, it must have been a day like any other day for the victims. Just like waking up to a bright day, with all the plans and thoughts for the day, and boom! A Pandora box of unfathomable nightmares began to unfold. ” She remonstrated. “I could not bear it. It could be anyone. I wondered how they felt when they were picked up by the Nazis and told they were just being deported to another European town. They lied to them.”

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Ozioma was particularly smitten by the mug shot of this particular young lady, a Jew from Hungary, magnificent in her elegant dressing. Told she was moving to another city, she had turned out “dressed to kill.” There was yet another woman – a nun, who was all smiles in her photograph. Asked why she was all smiles, she had answered, “I cannot wait to meet my Lord.” Looking at both, Ozioma teared up.
Ozioma, the Ada (Igbo name for a first daughter} of my brood, is a Political Scientist and an Erasmus scholar in one of the Central European Universities. On rounding up an exchange programme in Opole, Poland (an hour by train to Auschwitz) thought to visit the Holocaust Memorial at Auschwitz before returning to her base.

She had hesitated a bit before making up her mind. “I could read up anything I wanted online,” she thought. She had also been in Krakow and could not visit the Schindler’s factory, another infamous Nazi war plant in Poland. It was shut down for the COVID-19 lockdown at that time.

By golly, on reaching Auschwitz, she was overwhelmed by a torrent of insight far beyond what the book nor the internet could unveil. On disembarking from the train, she was first struck by the gust of chilly winter wind that wafted over the stealth solemnity of the surrounding vegetation and the weird memories it evoked. Here, over 1.3 million souls, among them 1.1million Jews, were poisoned to death, transported as railway and cattle-truck cargoes from across Europe: Germany, France, Sudetenland, Poland, Hungary and more. Languid and faint, they gazed oblivious of the picturesque countryside and flora that raced behind from the windows of the running trains.

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Upon arrival, life and death decisions were made. The throng was separated. Those who were of no “economic value” were herded to the concentration camps “led like a sheep to the slaughter,” while the able-bodied ones were marched to the labour camps or war factories like Schindler’s Factory. The gates of the camps bore the sign, “Work sets you free.” Unfortunately, this freedom meant freedom of the graveyard.

The camp was a system of three facilities: AuschwitzI, for male; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, for women and children and Auschwitz III for prisoners of war. All purpose-built for the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, priests, monks, people with disabilities and Jehovah’s witnesses etc. The soldiers would fill up the gas chambers with about 2000 prisoners at a time and then release the gas called Zyklon B through some holes in the wall. When they sensed that there was still some life in the chamber, they would add more canisters to finish them off.

The protective wires surrounding the camp were energized. To these some courageous prisoners often ran and deliberately got themselves electrocuted to death before their instalment. A certain Dr. Josefa Mengeles was notorious for using Roma (Gipsy) children for medical experiments. He was particularly interested in twins, dwarves, kids with different eye colours etc.

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Here too, my daughter realized that the African part was under-reported. There was chiefly soldier of the French legion, prisoners of war. They too were made to pass through the “showers“–as the infamous Nazi Gas chambers were known.

Auschwitz, was deliberately chosen because it was in the middle of nowhere in the mid-30s: A town in the backwaters of central Europe, outside the prying eyes of the media. Access to it was easily highly restricted. Nobody dared and nobody did. It was properly-suited to cover up the carnage that went on for half a decade: 1940 – 1945. At the end of the German campaign, in all the camps, over 17 million people had died, of which 6 million were Jews.

“Cameras are forbidden here!” was the instruction in a particular area of the Memorial where real hairs shaved off women were on display. These were usually spun into linen fabrics. The mountain of shoes of different sizes, schools bags and travel boxes were still there. All for people who set out for journeys in which there was no return.

The tourists were also shown the ponds used to keep the human ashes after cremation. Observing the facility conjured up the creepy plumes of its towering smoke. This had given title to the bestseller, “The Smoke of Birkenau” a souvenir book she bought for me. It was reported that the Nazis also made glycerine and soap from the fat emanating from the dead bodies. Though this part is contested, yet, in such a situation nothing could have been off-limits.

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“Holocaust was not only a tragedy for the Jews.” She concluded. “It was a tragedy for humanity. For those who fail to heed the lessons of history.”

At the base of an inspiring bronze statue at the United Nations garden is a verse from the book of Isaiah (2:4): “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nations, neither shall they learn wars anymore.” This was the scriptural basis for the treaties that ended World War II. Ever since then, Europe has worked its way back from the Holocaust and has built inclusive nations based on mutual respect for nationalities, cultures and people’s homelands.
Africa remains the only continent that has refused to learn from these tragedies. Even the Rwandan genocide, the Nigerian civil war and the spectre of failed states – Somalia, Libya, Mali and others have not taught us anything. Why are we dancing on the precipice of tragedy? I could not but plead with the Nigerian leadership to act quickly to dispel the darkening clouds.

It is time to heed the words of Isaiah and beat our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. This is only possible through respect for the homeland and sensibilities of ethnic nationalities.
God save Nigeria!

Uzodinma is an Abuja-based media consultant.

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