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On vaccines, lies, and Auschwitz
And the usefulness of performative anger when the facts are more and more against you
In the fall of 2008, I visited Auschwitz.
I was in Poland to talk about my novels, and I’m Jewish, and it seemed wrong not to go to the site, to try to understand what is impossible to understand.
I remember two things most clearly. The first is how big the camp was. There’s essentially nothing left of it, of course. But the open field where the bunks and gas chambers and everything else had stood seemed enormous. But then it had to be. The Nazis killed over a million people there, nearly all Jews. They killed with precision and method. They needed machinery, and machinery needs space.
But the Poles around the site must have known. As the Jews came in but did not leave. As the ghettos and villages emptied out month by month. They must have known. The Germans too. Such a large place, so many people involved. Even if the Nazis had wanted to keep the secret - and they didn’t, not really, they didn’t care - sooner or later everyone in Germany and Poland must have known. Many knew without knowing, perhaps, without letting themselves know, but they all knew.
And I thought, looking at that vast field, Who thought this was a good idea?
My second thought was simpler. It came at the visitor center. Before the killing really got rolling, the Germans photographed new arrivals to the camp. Corridors of the visitor center were lined with those pictures. A couple in particular stood out. They weren’t of Jews. They were of French commandos whom the Nazis had captured in, I believe, late 1941. Yes, the Germans occasionally sent prisoners of war to Auschwitz - more proof they weren’t exactly trying to hide their Jew-killing.
These men weren’t downtrodden shtetl dwellers. They were tough. They looked at the camera without fear.
They died in months.
The great misunderstanding about Auschwitz is that surviving the selection didn’t mean the Nazis had chosen you to live. It meant they believed that instead of being gassed to death you were strong enough to be worked and starved to death. You had stored calories in your body that would be of use.
Auschwitz is called a concentration camp, but even that term is a euphemism. The only thing it concentrated was death.
But the Nazis didn’t want to tell the people they’d chosen to be worked to death the truth. So they put up a motto at the camp gates: arbeit macht frei. Work makes free.
Work didn’t make free. Nothing made free.
The motto was on my mind Friday morning when I saw this story.
A “path to freedom” that involves calling up the army. Of course. Makes total sense.
We have been told so many lies over the last 18 months, but none bigger than this:
The vaccines are our only hope to return to normal life. Vaccines will make us free.
The sentence is actually two lies in one. We can go back to normal whenever we choose, the coronavirus has a death rate far closer to the flu than smallpox or most other pathogens we have feared so much in the past.
Worse, it is now clear to ANYONE who watches that the coronavirus vaccines will not get us there. Not only will they not end the epidemic, their peak protection lasts a few weeks in the people who need them most. In the countries that vaccinated first, the Britain and Israel, deaths and hospitalizations have risen sharply this month, and most of the serious cases are in the vaccinated.
This doesn’t mean we have to panic. It means we have to acknowledge the truth - that we must live with the coronavirus rather than trying to remake society for it, much less force these flawed vaccines on everyone.
And so I tweeted “impfung macht frei” on Friday morning: Vaccines make free. The reference is not to the vaccines as agents of mass death - they are not. The reference is to the lie that vaccines would set you free, if only you would shut up and line up when it was “your turn.” (Remember that bit of focus-grouped nonsense?)
Now the people who have been mad at me for 18 months for pointing out their lies are mad about this too. To point out the lies is to disrespect the Holocaust, they say.
I doubt they believe a word they’re saying at this point. Their anger is purely performative. Holocaust comparisons far more explicit than that one have been thick on the ground the last four years, and no one has batted an eye:
They are yelling at me now for one reason: to distract you from the truth that they were as wrong about the vaccines as about everything else. Worse, to hide that fact, they are going to try to force you and your family to take them.
Don’t let them distract you. They know the truth.
And one day soon they’ll have to admit it.