We just shot them down where they stood!


As some may recall, I wrote that I went to a Catholic Grammar School. From my advancing years, I can honestly state that my education wasn’t very good, as the whole school was run by Catholic priests, with a leavening of teachers from ordinary backgrounds. The standard of education was moderate, but, as far as I recall, I only ever gained four things from my time at that school. I learned a great and abiding distaste for bullies, especially bullies with a religious ideal; I did gain a method for ordering my mind in the learning of the Latin language, and of Ancient Roman history; a deep and abiding respect and admiration for classical music: but finally, and perhaps crucially, we were all given one piece of advice which stuck in my memory for over sixty-odd years. We were told, indeed advised, as a matter of priority, that we should read a book entitled ‘The Scourge of the Swastika’ by Lord Liverpool.

When reading the pages and gazing silently at the pictures within, from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old boy, it was almost incredible to understand that these savageries, these colossal crimes, were mainly all commissioned and carried out by Germans; the same Nation who gave birth to Schiller and Goethe, and also to the music of Telemann, Bach and Offenbach.

But I would like to bring to your attention another, perhaps more important document, or rather Documentary, this being the long-concealed filmed history of the discovery of the almost unbelievable sights which faced the first British soldiers who drove into Belsen, the ordinary Russians who burst into Maidanek, and their reaction to these unbelievable barbarities. Two things stick in my mind; the first was a statement by a British officer that all the SS and other guards were arrested and later made to fill the mass graves with those emaciated corpses. The second was perhaps more human, more immediate; the Russian soldier said, ‘The SS and the guards; we shot them all down where they stood.’ I have not been able to locate the slot on the Channel 4 ‘on demand’ site, so here, in all its ghastly glory, is that Documentary, hidden away for reasons unknown, for over seventy years.

I learned two things from that film: one was that when a corpse which looks and gives the notion that it was a skeleton is carried, or dragged from where it was casually piled towards the mass grave which was its final resting place, whatever flesh and skin remaining gave the impression of being almost elastic, or rubbery: the second being that the men and the women who organised and managed these fields of death looked just like any other human being; except possibly there was a common factor of a deadness about the eyes. They were not ashamed about their handywork; but perhaps ashamed that they had been defeated.

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