By the end of the World War II, it is estimated that 6 million Jews and another 5 million people (consisting of Gypsies, Poles, Homosexuals, Soviet PoWs and the mentally and physically disabled) were murdered by the Nazis.
It seems appropriate to post this in April. During World War two many Nazi Camps were liberated. A fair number of the camps were liberated during April 1945, as World War II approached its end. The sheer number of camps is staggering and horrifying.
I ended up in one of many discussions on twitter, this one about Band of Brothers and I remarked that episode 9 “why we fight” is my favourite. I use the term favourite loosely given the subject matter.
Before the start of each episode of Band of Brothers, members of Easy Company speak and some of them understandably struggle to and, in some cases, cannot hold back tears. It is entirely impossible for me to get through Band of Brothers without shedding tears. Though each episode gives you a reason episode 9 opens the flood gates for me. While Major Richard Winters and his men marched across Europe there were people who were witnesses to and subjects of horrific murders. They were locked up in concentration camps, labour camps, and extermination camps. They were used to do manual labour, starved, and experimented on and murdered in horrific ways simply because they were Jewish, they defied the Nazis, or the Nazis decided they were inferior and did not deserve to live.
Episode 9 gives us the concentration camp.
“Why we fight” drives home the horrifying nature of the camps and it does so extremely well. It is a harrowing and sad episode to watch. I imagine it must have been absolutely horrible, sickening and emotionally exhausting to film those scenes. For the 8 episodes preceding it, largely the focus is on the soldiers. Episode 9 brings those people not trained to fight or ignore their fear back into the equation. It highlights the fragility of humanity, the worst that humanity has to offer and the struggles of the soldiers as they try to maintain discipline in the face of such a horrific discovery.
It has often been remarked that one of Damian Lewis’s greatest strengths is his ability to say a lot without actually speaking and anyone who has seen Homeland will be able to attest to this. Band of Brothers came before Homeland though and that ability is in full force especially in episode 9. In particular, the scene where the soldiers realise they have found a camp and they are interacting with the prisoners. It falls on Major Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) as the highest ranking officer present at that time to take control and there is a moment where the camera is on him and the shock and horror of the situation is evident in his expressions. His face expresses his emotions as emphatically, if not more so, as any words could.
It made sense to re-watch Band of Brothers and the documentary on the bonus disc. A quote from the documentary stood out for me:-
“These guys have been together in the absolute base experiences of human existence. They were there with each other knowing you’re going to die or thinking you are going to die, or seeing people die all around you and there they went day after day and I admire that and I held my father, even on his tombstone as Sgt Joe Toye, 506 PIR,101st Airborne Division. That is what he wanted on his tombstone. It meant that much to him.” Peter Toye, son of Sgt Joe Toye
These young men had their lives interrupted to train and then go and fight this war. Many of their comrades and friends would not return home with them. All because one man and his closest associates wanted to control everyone. They has specific requirements for who was considered to be the right sort of person. They callously and cruelly ended millions of lives. In order to help stop Hitler, Joe Toye and his fellow soldiers suffered through the horrors of seeing their friends killed. They suffered through horrible conditions and discoveries.
Humanity is at the heart of episode 9. The worst is on display as we enter the concentration camp and see what the Nazis have done to people they have imprisoned.
It is hard to say which bit is the worst bit of episode 9, the shots of the prisoners, emaciated and devastated; the heaps of dead bodies; the mention of people being burned alive; or the fact that the Nazis murdered as many prisoners as they could before fleeing to avoid the arrival of the Americans. However, when one of the prisoners who is speaking to Winters and Liebgott and tells them that “the women’s camp is at the next railroad stop”, before breaking down, I just burst into tears.
The soldiers struggling with what they saw is also covered on screen. As was remarked on the documentary many of the men who went to fight could still be considered boys themselves and it was hard for them to deal with. Yet, they enter the camp and offer the little food and water they have to those who need it more. They give comfort as best they can even though they are perhaps distressed themselves.
Watching the episode the natural reaction is to get very angry and wonder how people could do what the Nazis did and question exactly why they considered it appropriate and acceptable. Perhaps the worst thing is that there is no logical reason. Millions of human lives and potential wasted just because one man wanted it that way and could.
It upsets me greatly that so many lives were not lived, but rather cruelly and horrifically ended for incomprehensible reasons.
We seem determined to stick labels on each other. Being human and taking care of each other is something which should bind us all more than any other label we like to pin on each other.