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Feb 25, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Opinion: War crimes and a lady who rose above it all

Guelph Mercury

It is fitting, I suppose, that during the same week we learned the oldest survivor of the Holocaust has died, charges were laid against some of the oldest surviving guards from the Nazi death camps.

Alice Herz-Sommer died Sunday in London at the age of 110. Her incredible life story has been chronicled in two books and an Oscar-nominated documentary.

She was admitted to hospital Friday one day after German police raided the homes of nine suspected SS guards. Three men from Baden Wuerttemberg, aged 88, 92 and 94, were charged with accessory to murder.

They are among 30 former prison guards under investigation for their roles in the extermination of prisoners during the Second World War at the notorious Auschwitz German Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.

Their arrests are a testament to the determination of organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to seek justice for victims of Nazi atrocities and serve as a reminder to the world that there is no statute of limitations on war crimes.

It is remarkable that Herz-Sommer was not consumed by bitterness over her experiences during the war and chose, instead, to focus on the happy memories. She learned to play piano when she was a child and her love for the music of Polish composer Frederic Chopin played a central role in her life.

She was a young Jewish mother in 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Her 73-year-old mother was arrested in 1942 and died in the Treblinka German Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

In 1943, Herz-Sommer was taken from her home in Prague along with her husband and son and placed in a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin. Her husband, Leopold Sommer, was eventually transferred to Dachau concentration camp in Germany where he died from typhus.

Herz-Sommer maintained her optimism during the two years she spent in the prison work camp by playing piano and focusing on the welfare of her young son, Stephan. She performed regularly for the other prisoners until the camp was liberated by Russian troops in 1945.

She moved to Israel in 1949 and taught—music in Jerusalem until 1986 before she moved to London. Her story is a testament to the power of the human spirit and many hoped she would live until March 2 so she could see the Academy Awards honour the documentary of her life, The Lady in Number 6—Music Saved My Life.

It seems a cosmic injustice that the central character in another Oscar-nominated documentary is a free man and will share the spotlight this Sunday with many of his Hollywood heroes.

The Act of Killing is a deeply disturbing documentary that casts a light on war crimes from a different angle. The film follows mass murderer Anwar Congo, who admits to personally killing well over 1,000 people in Indonesia during the 1960s.

The film opens with a sobering quote by French philosopher Voltaire: "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

It is estimated that more than half a million people were killed during the 1965-66 anti-communist purge that swept through Indonesia following a failed military coup against socialist Indonesian president Sukarno.

Congo and other gang members selected their victims from lists of suspected communists often provided by the American CIA and other Western intelligence organizations.

Joshua Oppenheimer, the film's director, urges Congo and others to re-enact the killings in whatever way they want for the film. They chose to emulate the roles of Hollywood gangsters, such as the Godfather and Scarface.

Congo and the others brag about the massacres. They are treated like celebrities in their communities and are praised for their deeds by government officials.

When asked if they feared being prosecuted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, one of the killers says, "War criminals are prosecuted by the victors. We are the victors."

Troy Bridgeman is a Guelph author and freelance journalist.

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(1) Comment

By Ian | FEBRUARY 25, 2014 04:57 PM
I read about Alice. What a remarkable woman.She was never bitter about what she experiencied. Either a very lucky woman, or a truly exceptional woman, we'll never know. Meanwhile people are still collecting skulls of people they have killed for their belts, and very proud they are.
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