We are all capable of genocide says Holocaust survivor

By Ian Dipple Monday 28 January 2013 Updated: 30/01 12:10

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Buy photos » Dr Martin Stern believes there is hope humanity can turn away from genocide. Picture by Neville Collins 04013036ncr12

AS A five-year-old child, imprisoned in the Nazi prison camp of Westerbork in the Netherlands, Martin Stern watched thousands of people packed like cattle onto trains and rushed to their deaths at Auschwitz or other extermination camps.

One thing always bothered him.

"There were a few soldiers and okay they were wearing military uniforms and carrying pistols but I could see their faces and their faces looked ordinary and stupid and ignorant as I was at the age of five, it was a puzzle to me how one set of normal looking people could do that, packing them in like sardines in goods trucks and cattle trucks, to another set of people who I knew were normal."

It is a question that for the last eight years since he retired as an immunologist working in hospitals in Leicester, that has spurred Dr Stern to talk about his own Holocaust survival story and to look deeper at the reasons why humanity feels the need to inflict such brutality on itself.

He vividly recalls the moment he was arrested at his school in Amsterdam because his father was a Jew.

"The door opened at the back of the little hall and two young men walked in. One of them asked is Martin Stern here. And the teacher immediately shot back 'No he hasn’t come in today' and there I was in the middle of the row with my classmates. I did not understand what was going on and I put my hand up and said 'But I am here' and as these two young men were leading me out of that little hall I looked back and I saw her and I will never forget the ashen face of the teacher."

Martin was born to German parents in Nazi occupied Holland. Both were against the Nazi regime.

His father disappeared when he was three. His mother died from an infection after giving birth to his sister Erica. For two years he lived with friends of his parents, just around the corner from Anne Frank's house.

It was Martin himself who was tricked into giving away the man who had become a father to him. He was sent to a concentration camp in Neuengamme near Hamburg. All his wife got back was his spectacles.

"They looked after me for two years as if I was there own son and I mean that in every conceivable sense, they were wonderful and of course the husband died for his penance," he added.

His sister had been taken in by another Dutch family and was also arrested at the age of just one and both were sent to a camp in Westerbork in the Netherlands.

"Terrible food, vegetables you would throw away, terribly crowded, a great atmosphere of fear and every week a train of cattle trucks and goods trucks taking about 1,000 people to their deaths," he said.

"My turn came and my sister and I were loaded into a cattle truck, no room to sit, one bucket as a latrine and I think three or four days and nights with no food no drink, of course that process itself was torture," he said.

"The trains on the side had signs stating their destination and there were two Auschwitz and Sobibor. If I had been on one of those trains I wouldn’t be here. By the end of that sort of journey people got off the train and they would do anything they were told on the promise of getting something to eat and drink. It was thought out that’s how people were tricked into the gas chambers."

Dr Stern's train stopped in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic, a place the Germans kept a few Jews alive and used it as a propaganda tool to show the outside world they were not being as badly treated as some made out.

"It was disgusting crowded even the roof spaces were disgustingly crowded, fleas, lice bed bugs, a stench, little opportunity to wash. People were dying in large numbers but the main mode of death was being put on a train which went right into the town and people were taken off to labour camps with a high death rate or extermination camps."

He and his sister were taken under the wing of a Dutch woman who was imprisoned there for marrying a Jew.

"She worked in the kitchen and stole food for us in a place where people were shot for having a cigarette in their pocket. She was risking her life and as a result we never actually starved, I was very hungry but not a skeleton."

With Germany collapsing the camp was liberated by the Soviets but a bout of Typhus fever meant several more weeks in the camp before he returned to Holland.

He remained there being looked after by various families until the age of 12 before making his way to England to stay with his Aunt who had fled Holland before the war. He went on to Oxford University under a state scholarship and a career in medicine.

He admitted he landed on his feet and had tremendous loyalty to Britain but he added: "It wasn’t easy and that is generally so for Holocaust survivors. Don’t imagine they were liberated and lived happily ever after."

The extermination of the Jews, along with communists, homosexuals and many others by the Nazis during the Second world War is perhaps the most well-known genocide but as Dr Stern says, 'It wasn't the first and it wasn't the last'.

In 1904 Germany carried out mass killing of the native people of what is now Namibia and in 1914 Armenian Christians were brutally slain by the Turks. Since 1945 there has been genocide in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda to name but a few.

Despite having suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Dr Stern dismisses the theory which became fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s that genocide was something only Germans were capable of or that genocide is the work of a few evil people such as Hitler and Stalin.

"That's absolutely not true. Go out into the street and look around and you will see people capable of it," he added.

"A friend of mine who survived the genocidal events In the former Yugoslavia says to his audiences you want to know what a perpetrator looks like, go to the bathroom, look in the mirror."

So if there is no 'genocidal gene' and people are not 'born evil' how is it perfectly normal people go on to commit such atrocities?

"The answer I believe to be true is all of us by virtue of being normal have mechanisms which are necessary for every day life but which can go wrong and they go wrong in groups," Dr Stern explains.

"It’s a bit like the organs of the body. You have a pancreas, a pituitary gland, a thyroid and without those you would be dead and if they malfunction you are very ill and they can malfunction in groups and it is the same with psychological mechanisms.

"If you did not have some degree of suspiciousness you would be sitting at home sending your bank details to somebody in Nigeria. We all need a degree of suspiciousness and there are people who lack it and they need someone to protect them and look after them.

"There are also people who are overly suspicious - the person with a chip on their shoulder, the person with paranoid personality disorder - and in each one of us our degree of suspiciousness depends on our circumstances.

"If you are living with a family in safe circumstances and everything is fine you are not so suspicious, in other circumstances of course our suspicions are aroused and this can happen to a mass of people, the circumstances that existed in Germany between the First and Second World War it can be whipped up by a demagogue, it’s a normal mechanism that can malfunction.

"A baby attaches to its mother, then to its father then to other members of its family, the village, the church group, the tribe, the religion the political part of the country whatever, we have concentric circles of attachment and they are necessary for our normal social engagement.

"But what if someone tells you a disreputable story about someone not in any of your attachment groups, what then? Are you more ready to believe it? You see there is another side to the coin.

He added: "Fanaticism is something we deal with every day, you read the newspapers, it’s everywhere. I see some of the people who whip ordinary innocent folk up towards that state of fanaticism and what they try to do is make you angry.

"X group has done that to Y group and they tell you a very one sided story and the aim is to get you angry and once you are angry you are not thinking anymore. It’s a trick extremists use to get it so deeply embedded."

Exactly how to stop genocide is a question which no doubt will take many years to resolve. But Dr Stern is clear not all is lost.

"I spent most of my life sweeping it under the carpet, most Holocaust survivors have done that. The reason I give the talks is it is not about the past, it is about the present and about the future and as for what we should do about it, we need to know history but we need to go beyond that, there is more," he said.

"It’s not hopeless. The human race gave up cannibalism, why can’t we give up genocide? I think we can."

Dr Stern's full talk and question and answer session at Redditch Town Hall is available to download below:

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