Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I’d expected to feel horror. But just imagine – I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don’t think it’s because I’m a born slave. No. No. It’s because everyone around me shares my fate now: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway life a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights – simply an unfortunate human being. And that is easier to bear.
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
It may be hard for us to imagine the kind of oppression that makes the camp, the barbed wire or the institution welcome. But it starts when you feel attacked and vulnerable and when being together with others, ‘like you’ creates a source of comfort.
What we so often don’t seem to realise when we see people stigmatised, slandered, and scapegoated by ordinary people and by the powerful – then those people feel deeply hurt and vulnerable. All those empty, lazy stereotypes – the skiving scrounger on the dole – the greedy immigrant stealing our jobs – the fraud pretending to have disability – they all eat away at someone’s soul.
The fact that the stereotype is a lie does not protect the person under attack – in a strange way it makes the stereotype even more toxic – because we find that the truth offers no resistance to the lies of the powerful.
So the weak end by seeking comfort in each other. Too often this ends in tragedy, herded together people are even weaker and easier to attack. But occasionally, just occasionally, people are inspired to resist, to fight back and to demand the justice that others have taken away.