Sunday, 29 July 2007


Ten days ago I visited the ex-concentration camp, now museum, at Auschwitz. The experience was a sobering one, as you might expect. My reason for visiting is perhaps best summed up by the beautiful poem which prefaces Primo Levi's memoir, "If this is a man":
You who live safe
In your warm houses;
You who find on returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a bit of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no

Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
Without enough strength to remember
Vacant eyes and cold womb
Like a frog in the winter:

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
When staying at home and going out,

Going to bed and rising up;
Repeat them to your children:
Or may your house fall down,
Illness bar your way,
Your loved ones turn away from you.

Levi's injunction for us to remember what happened at Auschwitz is reason enough to visit the camp if given the chance. It is also reason enough to read Levi's book which is a beautifully written and extremely moving account of Levi's experience as an inmate at Auschwitz. The companion book "The Truce" describes his tortuous journey back to Italy after he was rescued from Auschwitz. I will list at the bottom of this entry some other books that are worth reading on this subject, as part of the "remembering" which Levi demands of us.

With regard to the experience of visiting the camp I want to mention just two things. Firstly the thing which shocked me the most: It was not, as I'd expected, the hideous conditions of the camp or the tragic tales of those imprisoned there. These things were of course inconceivably tragic but for some reason the thing which most shocked me was the slogan over the main gate. In metal letters the Nazis had inscribed "Arbeit macht frei" - Work brings Freedom - a slogan which, since it was a manifest lie for all those condemned to live in Auschwitz, cruelly mocked the daily struggles of the prisoners there.

I won't describe anything else about the camps - see the end to find much better places to read about Auschwitz than on this blog. Rather I want to mention an incident that happened as we left the camp. A bus load of teenagers arrived (there were a lot of people visiting that day) to tour the camp; as they mustered in front of the main entrance I noticed that a good portion of them were wrapped in the Israeli flag. I'm not sure that they were from Israel but they were obviously Jewish.

The sight of them gathered there caused me some consternation. For me the lesson I take as primary from Auschwitz is that I must take the responsibility to think for myself. The tragedy of Auschwitz is also the tragedy of a (largely) complicit German population. My response to this must be that I constantly engage my critical faculties and independence of thought to ensure that I never allow myself to participate in injustice of any kind, that I never let the mob mentality overcome basic morality.

Now by this I do not mean to suggest that I should reject good advice or should disrespect sources of moral authority. Someone recently commented that in this blog I seem to reject all forms of authority - I want to correct this impression now. My aim is to be open minded and to listen and learn from many and varied voices - but part of doing this responsibly is understanding that I am obliged to question everything I hear, to test the integrity of those sources which inform my world view.

One of the voices which I most distrust is that of the nationalist. Too often nationalism seems to suppurate into some level of moral blindness - national (or religious) flags often seem to act as some sort of moral blindfold and the consequences are often horrendous. And yet, on the other hand, groups of people are rightly keen to celebrate cultural identity.

There is, therefore, a difficult, but vital, line to tread. Those Jewish teenagers have every right to be proud of the astounding contribution which Jewish culture has made to human history. In addition their personal connection to the tragedy of anti-semitism is also part of their very identity and it is especially important that they too follow Levi's injunction to remember. Is this what was happening the other day at Auschwitz? Or was it the sinister inculcation of blind nationalism?

I must have some faith of course in the ability of those young people to think for themselves. But I am also aware that teenagers have a tendency towards experiencing the world very intensely and with a sense of great import. Experiences such as a visit to Auschwitz can generate a strong loyalty towards particular ideas or principles or group identity, a loyalty that can leave people vulnerable to cynical manipulation. All the more reason that we value the notion of thinking for oneself as I describe above...

One final comment. It is exactly this kind of cynical manipulation that lies at the root of the notion that the Holocaust is over-remembered. Some readers may point out that the Holocaust has a very high profile in mainstream European culture, while other issues of gargantuan tragedy do not. (Examples might be tragedies such as Stalin's gulags; the international slave trade; the Indonesian genocide in East Timor; CIA backed atrocities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala during the 80's, King Leopold II's genocide in the Congo etc etc).

I do not accept that the Holocaust is over-remembered - instead two phenomena are at work, both reflections of the principle that history is written by the victors: Firstly the other tragic events are under-remembered. Secondly the history of the Holocaust is consistently misused, in the cynical way I describe above, by governments, media and other groups. Typically it is misused either to generate support for the policies of the government of Israel, or to justify the use of force in the face of tyranny - I may write some more on this some other time...

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Some other books about the holocaust that I can recommend...

Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" is another survivor's account but with a difference; Frankl moves from his experience at Auschwitz to a formulation of the pschiatric theory of "logotherapy", a theory based on the idea that man's primary drive is to find/ create meaning in their lives. This theory contrasts with Freud's idea that sex is the primary drive or Adler's ideas that power is the primary drive. (These are gross simplifications - psychiatry aint my area of expertise...)

William Styron's "Sophie's Choice" deals directly with the issue of the Nazi concentration camps - the character Sophie is a non-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. The book is a scintillating read and deals with a wide range of profound issues - in relation to the holocaust perhaps the main focus is on the tragic experience of the survivors of Auschwitz, all of whom were horrifically scarred by their experiences.

One step removed from the issue of Auschwitz is Anne Michaels' book "Fugitive Pieces" which is a beautiful account of the life of a Jewish survivor of the Nazis. Anne Frank's diary is also a fascinating read - and so well known I don't need to describe it here.

There are a few other books on the issue that I haven't read but would like to, most notably Tadeusz Borowski's "This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" - another survivor's account.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading If this is a Man many years ago, and crying for a couple of days afterwards. I'd forgotten that poem though. Being in India do you think we are doing this on a global scale now and not just in the camps?

nickleberry said...

I guess one has to be careful before comparing the evils of the current capitalist system to the camps at Auschwitz. The camps were incredibly savage and inhuman constructions, directly aiming towards the extinction of particular groups of people.

Our current economic system does not have this overt aim. It is not fuelled by hatred, as such - although it generates plenty of hatred as a by product. The intense barbarity of the camps is incomparably greater than the ordinary experience of nearly all of the world population today. What's more, the camps were deliberately constructed to this end - as such, the two situations cannot be compared.

On the other hand, the end result of the current economic system is undoubtedly awful for a vast number of people on this planet. The effects of poverty, especially the daily death rates due to malnutrition and preventable disease, far exceed what went on in those camps. And, given that these facts are well known and the mechanisms by which they are brought about are at least partially understood, one could assert that the current situation has been deliberately brought about. OK, the aim is not to increase child mortality, say - this is merely a side effect of doing business - but does this really amount to any material difference? You are quite right to ask the question...