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Learning from this history

QUESTION: You say you’ve learnt a lot from the people you met who experienced World War Two. Who did you learn most from?

LAURENCE REES: That’s a really tough question! Over the last twenty years I must have met many hundreds, maybe over a thousand people who lived through the war, in Britain, America, Germany, Japan, Russia, Lithuania, Italy,  Poland, China and many other countries. So it’s hard to single one person out.

But, I guess, one of the most important people to me, personally, was a man named Toivi Blatt. He was a Polish Jew who was captured by the Germans and taken, with his parents, to Sobibor. Now Sobibor isn’t as well known as, say, Auschwitz, but it was every bit as horrific a place. Sobibor was one of what were known as the ‘Operation Reinhard’ camps – the biggest of which was Treblinka. Unlike Auschwitz, which was a combined concentration and death camp, the Operation Reinhard camps had only one purpose – murder. Overall, during the course of the camp's existence, you stood about a 99% chance of being dead within just a few hours of arriving in a transport of Jews at Sobibor. The only possibility of surviving a little longer was to be selected as one of the Jewish ‘Sonderkommando’ - prisoners who were forced, on pain of their own immediate execution, to work for the Nazis in the camp. Toivi was selected to join these Sonderkommando, and later managed to escape from the camp in the break out in the autumn of 1943. You can learn about his unforgettable experiences in the camp both by listening to the audio of  of his testimony here on WW2History.com or by reading his astonishing autobiography ‘From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival’.

But here I just want to mention his response when I asked him what he’d ‘learnt’ from his time in Sobibor. ‘I think I’m only sure of one thing,’ he said, ‘nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good or bad people....’

So what Toivi Blatt now believed, as a result of his time in Sobibor, is that human beings are – for the most part – incredibly malleable according to different extreme situations.

QUESTION: Do you know how you would react?

LAURENCE REES: Absolutely not. That’s the point. As Toivi says ‘Nobody knows themselves’. And if you admit you don’t really know yourself, it is pretty hard to think that you really know anyone else.

In fact, I had experience of this just the other day. I walked into a coffee shop at the bottom of my road and saw that there was a young man of about 20 standing by the counter arguing loudly with the lady who owns the shop. There were only the three of us in there. The young man was clearly disturbed in some way – he looked like he was on drugs, or maybe seriously mentally ill - and it suddenly seemed as if he might become violent. But if he did, what would I do? Would I try and stop him by physically restraining him (and he was a lot younger and stronger than me) or would I just shout for help? Or maybe I would discover I was a coward and just run away.... Luckily, the young man decided at that moment just to storm out of the shop so I was never called upon to make a decision.

But my point is that I couldn’t predict how I would react a matter of seconds later - in fact, I still don’t know what I would have done if that young man had become violent. And if that’s the case, then how can we truly know ourselves – since we don’t know how we will behave if we are suddenly tested?

And there’s also a much bigger question behind all this. Which is, to what extent are you who you are because of qualities that are genetically in you, or because of the way you were raised and the culture around you?

This notion of how we are shaped by circumstance is another question which fascinates me. After all, if you had been born an Aztec, six hundred years ago, you would have been part of a society that believed in human sacrifice and ripping people’s hearts out, wouldn’t you? And what all this makes me think is that we should devote less time to worrying selfishly about ourselves as individuals, and much more time to worrying about the society and culture that surrounds us. Because in a quite profound way, that culture and society plays a major role in making us who we are.