When the news broke about Josef Fritzl’s mistreatment of his daughter I was initially shocked. What sort of a man could do this to his daughter, I wondered. How come he wasn’t found out sooner? Did his wife know? My questions were unspectacular in their banality. I knew that I could never understand a man like Fritzl, nor did I particularly want to. All I had to understand is that bad things happen in this world. Having accepted this fact, I’m no longer shocked by what happens in it. Disappointed? Of course, I am, but so what else is new?
The interesting thing about the Fritzl affair is that the perpetrator who has now been convicted, seemed to be a fairly normal man in society. Nobody suspected him. And that is often the case with these “monsters”. It always amuses me when a serial killer is arrested and his neighbours mutter something silly like, “He always said hello.” As if saying hello means that you can’t possibly be a murderer or a molester or whatever.
I have to admit that my phlegmatic attitude towards the depravity of mankind comes from my background. I grew up among Holocaust survivors. My early childhood life consisted of sneaking across borders in the dead of night until we finally ended up in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. I was only three at the time and so was surrounded by accounts of suffering.
My “normal life” did not begin until I was seven when we came to Australia. The Holocaust and its effects on our people have dominated my life and convinced me that mankind can sink to any depth.
I’ve just finished reading the memoirs of Rafael Rajzner in his book called “The Stories Our Parents Found Too Painful to Tell.” It was initially written in Yiddish in 1948 after World War II by an eye-witness to the destruction of the Jewish community in Bialystok, Poland. Rafael Rajzner, himself, spent time in the Bialystok ghetto and then was transported to various concentration camps. He owes his survival to the fact that he was a printer and was used as a slave to make counterfeit money for the Nazis. Rajzner came to Australia after the war, wrote his memoirs and died quite early. His book was translated into English and published in 2008 by AMCL Publications, Caulfield North, Victoria.
Rajzner describes in a dispassionate manner the way that the Nazis and their Ukrainian and Polish collaborators systematically degraded and destroyed their Jewish victims, first in the ghetto and then in the concentration camps. Once you have read this book you are no longer capable of being shocked by anything else. This is the most horrifying eye-witness account of Nazi atrocities that I have ever read in my life. And I have read Primo Levi and Elie Weisel, so that’s saying something!
I am not dismissing Fritzl’s villainy, but having heard about the Holocaust from the remnants of my family who did not perish in the war, I know that bad men don’t walk around with a black eye patch and a long facial scar to identify that they are the baddies.
Bad men can come from a civilised society like the German one. In fact they do say “hello”. They are married and have children. They go to church and run a business. Sometimes they even run a church. They are like you and me, except that they can do terrible things.
Who would have thought that Germans, with their love of culture and philosophy, could turn into a nation of Fritzls? But they did.
The Austrians are asking themselves why the Fritzl case happened in such a civilised country as theirs. My answer to them is “Why not?”. It’s not the first time that they have accepted a monster amongst them and it won’t be the last.