Geopolitics

Auschwitz Survivor Hails Germany’s "Heroic" Stand On Migrants

Auschwitz survivor and University of California professor Ruth Klüger's address to the German parliament to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was stirringly relevant to today's great challenges.

Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger
Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger
Alan Posener

BERLIN â€" If ever we needed proof that our country is able to remember the victims of the Nazi era with dignity while looking optimistically into the future, it was provided during yesterday's Day of Remembrance that marked 71 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Having begun with Bundestag President Norbert Lammert's admonition to be aware of the constant threat to liberty, it ended with Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger's appreciation of the "simple and heroic slogan, "We Can Do It!"" for Germany's unique efforts to respond to the refugee crisis. It was a lesson in history the likes of which every student in the country should behold.

When a 12-year-old Klüger arrived at Auschwitz by train from Theresienstadt, she was saved with a fib. She would have been gassed with most of her fellow prisoners had it not been for a woman who whispered in her ear to tell the Nazis she was 15 instead of 12. And that's why she was selected to die a slow death by slave labor rather than a quick one by asphyxiation.

But the liberation of Auschwitz prevented that untimely death. The then slight 12-year-old has become a still slight but confident 84-year-old. The literary scholar who, among other things, writes for Die Welt, reigned supreme during Wednesday's speech to the Bundestag, Germany's federal legislative body. She represents an entire generation that has suffered and survived so much, one that is nearly gone. But the suffering has not stopped.

Slow deaths

Some 13 million people were sentenced to hard labor in the German Reich, which constituted a quarter of all workers and employees at the time. Berlin alone had 3,000 collective accommodation sites for 500,000 workers. Everyone knew what was going on, Lammert remarked, but it wasn't until 40 years later that the Day of Remembrance was introduced.

And it was only in 2000 that Germany finally managed to establish the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, which has paid compensation to 1.5 million former slave laborers. Lammert characterized this as nothing more than a gesture, a token payment. But it's one that nonetheless was met with considerable resistance by many German citizens, who were of the opinion that there had to be an end to the paying of historical debt.

But, Lammert continued, there cannot be an upper limit to remembrance, no matter how heavy the burden. Every culture has to develop its own culture of remembrance, Lammert said. "This includes this and future generations and those who, for whatever reason, came to us in later years." We should be vigilant against inhumanity, anti-Semitism and racism, "which applies to all who live here."

Ruth Klüger began her speech by returning to the winter of 1944/45, to the women's concentration camp of Christianstadt, a smaller camp within the larger Gross-Rosen. The days immediately following her removal from Auschwitz and its "cadaver stench" were filled with "sheer bliss" to be alive, to see trees and the end of a deep-seated fear for her life. But soon thereafter cold and hunger crept in.

Model of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp â€" Source: Lzur/GFDL

The women laborers had to do work whose meaning they didn't quite understand. Even reciting poems while working was considered "an act of sabotage." But Klüger was filled with a "childish, pre-feminist pride and defiance" about the fact that the Germans weren't able to get the Jewish women to march, or goose-step, to work the way they wanted them to. "Men were more willing to do so," she said.

Klüger acknowledged the accomplishments of the women laborers, "women of the middle classes, born around the turn of the century, who had relied on men to provide for and protect them," and who were now forced to fight against men who let them starve. The term "slave labor" doesn't even come close to accurately describing what these women experienced, she said, seeing as how the slave owner at least has an interest in keeping his property alive. But as long as the German raids continued, there was no shortage of slave laborers.

Klüger spoke of the "forced sexual labor" of female concentration camp prisoners who were delivered to "privileged" male prisoners. These women were victimized twice: Because they were not considered slave laborers, they therefore weren't entitled to compensation. Even the post-Nazi generation believed "the age-old prejudice that women were demeaned by intercourse."

Klüger recalled an incident in which she once witnessed a man queuing ahead of her in a shop in Göttingen, raging that "all these foreigners should be gassed, and politicians too, while we're at it." But even less brutal comments did and still do express the general wish to suppress the past.

Redemption

But the lesson didn't end there. Klüger noticed with "amazement that turned into admiration" how Germany opened its borders and took in refugees, she said. This, she continued, was the main reason why she decided to speak to the Bundestag, despite the fact that she is skeptical about remembrance rituals.

She declared Germany's attitude towards refugees as "simple and heroic."

It would be so easy to criticize this particular remembrance event with a right-wing attitude in mind, because it ended with the popular communist front song "Peat Bog Soldiers," or because it was exploited to honor the chancellor's policies with lessons learned from the past.

But could it be that Germany is finally grown up enough to incorporate communism into its history without forgetting anti-communism? Could it be possible that, as Klüger said, we actually gain "global applause" for our refugee policies but only register the complaints within Europe? Could it be possible that a jolt will go through Germany after this event that will enable us to walk just a little bit taller? It could be.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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