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A True Parable

During World War II, those Jews who were not immediately exterminated by Hitler's brutal henchmen were herded into disease infested concentration camps. In Hungary, the Nazis set up a camp factory where prisoners were forced to distill tons of human waste and garbage into alcohol to be used as a fuel additive.

Perhaps even worse than being forced to labor amid the nauseating odor of stewing sludge was the prisoners' realization that their work was helping to fuel Hitler's war machine. Yet month after month the laborers survived on meager food and disgusting work.

In 1944, Allied aircraft began bold air strikes deep into Europe. One night this area of Hungary was bombed, and the hated factory was destroyed. The next morning the guards ordered the prisoners to one end of the charred remains where they were commanded to shovel the wreckage into carts and drag it to the other end of the compound.

They're going to make us rebuild the wretched place, the prisoners thought as they bent to their labor.

The next day they were ordered to move the huge pile of debris again, back to the other end of the compound. Stupid swine, the prisoners murmured to themselves. They made a mistake and now we have to undo everything we did yesterday.

But it was no mistake.

Day after day after day, the prisoners hauled the same mountain of rubble back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. After several weeks of this meaningless drudgery, one old man began sobbing uncontrollably and was led away by the guards. Another screamed until his captors beat him into silence. Then a young man who had survived three years of the vile labor that supported the oppressors' cause darted away from the group and raced toward the electric fence.

"Halt!" the guards shouted. But it was too late. There was a blinding flash, a terrible sizzling noise, and the smell of smoldering flesh.

The futile labor continued, and in the days that followed dozens of prisoners went mad and ran from their work, only to be shot by the guards or electrocuted by the fence.

Their captors didn't care, of course. Indeed the commandant of the camp had ordered this monstrous activity as "an experiment of mental health" to see what would happen when people were given meaningless work. After seeing the results, he smugly remarked that at this rate there soon would be "no more need to use the crematoria."

If you want to utterly crush a man, said the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in The House of the Dead, just give him work of completely senseless, irrational nature. Dostoevsky, who himself spent ten years in prison, wrote: "If he had to move a heap of earth from one place to another and back again – I believe the convict would hang himself… preferring rather to die than endure… such humiliation, shame and torture."

Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence. They go stark, raving mad.

"He who lives by killing time dies with it."