In his memoir If This Is a Man, Primo Levi recalled his first adjustments to the Auschwitz regime with a sort of wry irony, telling how he asked a prisoner already experienced in the ways of the camp whether the guards would give them back their toothbrushes. Contemptuously, the prisoner replies: ‘You are not at home, this is not a sanatorium, the only exit is by way of the Chimney’. When Levi, thirsty, breaks off an icicle, it is brutally snatched away by a guard who, on being asked ‘Why?’ replies, ‘There is no why here’.
On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by advancing Soviet troops in January 1945, and with the numbers of those who survived the death camp dwindling by the year, there is – as with First World War remembrance – an added urgency to questions about how to ensure that the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust remain alive when all of those who experienced its horrors have passed on.
Last week, as the opener to its season of programmes marking Holocaust Memorial Day 2015, the BBC offered something slightly different to the usual documentaries about Auschwitz or the recollections of Holocaust survivors. In The Eichmann Show, director Paul Andrew Williams and writer Simon Block dramatised the true story of how producer Milton Fruchtman, and the blacklisted TV director Leo Hurwitz overcame huge obstacles to film the trial in Jerusalem in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, accused of organising the murder of 6 million Jews.
Martin Freeman as Milton Fruchtman and Anthony LaPaglia as Leo Hurwitz in The Eichmann Show
The screenplay brought into focus several issues surrounding the trial, but at the heart of the film was Hurwitz’s conviction, as he directed the cameras filming the trial, that if the camera lens was focussed closely enough on Eichmann’s eyes, somehow his guilt and the truth about his motives would be revealed there.
Nothing was revealed, of course. The film featured some fine acting and direction, its impact heightened by the incorporation of actual film of the trial shot by Hurwitz’s team (footage that, edited daily, was broadcast in Germany, America, Israel and more than thirty other countries – the world’s first ever global TV event). It was a reminder, too, that the trial proved to be a turning point in one other important respect: for long after the war was over, even in Israel, the preferred option was to draw a veil over the Holocaust.
Adolf Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried in 1961
Early on, I thought – mistakenly -that the film might be moving towards an exploration of the ideas associated with Hannah Arendt who, having attended the trial gave her highly-contested analysis in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders, emphasizing instead that Eichmann was utterly committed to the programme of the Nazi movement, always remained loyal to Hitler, and by his actions ‘did his best to make the Final Solution final.’
At the trial, Eichmann agreed that he would have killed his own father if ordered to – but only if his father actually had been a traitor. Arendt pointed to this condition to show that Eichmann acted not simply from orders but also from conviction.
Arendt’s insight in Eichmann in Jerusalem – an insight that has relevance today, perhaps, when considering the psychology of Islamic terrorists – was that Eichmann was a ‘joiner.’ In his own words, Eichmann feared ‘to live a leaderless and difficult individual life’, in which ‘I would receive no directives from anybody.’ Arendt insisted that Eichmann’s professed loyalty to the Nazi cause ‘did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.’ By using the term ‘idealist’, she meant that she saw Eichmann as an ideologue – a person who will sacrifice their own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the ‘idea’ of the movement that has come to give their life meaning.
Arendt’s argument – and the meaning of her contested term ‘the banality of evil’ – was a complex one, rooted in her idea that Eichmann may well have failed to think about the crime he was committing. She did not mean that She did not think he acted like a robotic bureaucrat, but that he acted thoughtlessly and dutifully as a member of a movement, as someone convinced that he was serving a higher good. She insisted that the term ‘thinking’ had to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality. Men like Eichmann, Arendt wrote, did not think through a justification of their actions in terms of a rational or coherent ideology. For them, it was simply ‘the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique.’ She wrote:
The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.
Theodor Adorno famously said (or is attributed as stating) that to write poetry after Auschwitz was impossible. Reading about the Eichmann trial, I stumbled across references to an American poet, Charles Reznikoff, who in 1975, did not write, but made a book-length poem composed solely from the testimony of Holocaust survivors distilled from the twenty-six volumes of documentation of the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. I have ordered a copy, but I don’t expect that it will be a light read: the poet Anne Stevenson said, ‘When we come to the end of Holocaust we want to find a place to be sick. No poet has ever written a book so nakedly shocking, so blatantly calculated to make us feel that the Nazi persecution of the Jews can never be fictionalized or abstracted into ‘literature’.’
This is from the introduction to the UK edition of Holocaust, by George Szirtes:
One evening a policeman came and told him… So begins Charles Reznikoff’s great cycle of poems, Holocaust. It could be the beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking…”?. and what follows in Reznikoff is certainly a metamorphosis of sorts: the transformation of certain human beings into something lower than monstrous insects to whom all trace and privilege of humanity is denied. But Kafka’s world was metaphor, it was imagined. Reznikoff’s was a historical record. In fact it was quite precisely a historical record. […]
By the time Holocaust appeared Charles Reznikoff had published some eighteen books of poetry and plays as well as seven of prose. It was 1975 and Reznikoff was eighty-one. He had one more year of life left. […]
And what of poetry, that which, Adorno told us, was impossible after Auschwitz? We must ask Paul Celan that and Primo Levi. After them a silence. Celan killed himself in 1970, Levi fell to his death in 1987. In between comes Reznikoff’s Holocaust. […]
To read Holocaust is a terrible experience, but an oddly affirming one, if only because of the music. It is a kind of debt to lost music in that it hardly seems music at all. The violin does not sob, the harmonica does not sound in the hut, the voice of the cantor does not rise from the pit. Those things are gone and, in their absence, we are aware of their having gone. There is no soundtrack at all. It is only perfectly objective language falling as accurately as it can, working towards some ideal, convincing cadence that is hard to tell from ordinary syntax. It is the music of sheer labour.
In this review of the poem, Sanford Pinsker provides an insight into Reznikoff’s technique:
Holocaust, originally published in 1975, comes to us as a “found poem,” an extended exercise in rearranging material into a poetic form. In Reznikoff’s case, this meant extensive editing (Reznikoff was interested in the “stories” at the center of his sources) and arranging his line breaks into effective breath units. In “Reznikoff and his Sources,” Janet Sutherland compares a typical run of Reznikoff’s lines with their original source. Here is Reznikoff:
One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms.
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
The baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
And behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
And she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
And shot her twice.
And then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
And tore the baby apart as one would tear a rug.
Just then a stray dog passed
And the S.S. man stooped to pat it
And took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
And gave it to the dog.
And here is how the original source at the Eichmann trial reads:
The place we were hiding in bordered with the Aryan part and there was a fence there. [S.S. officer] Kidash caught a woman with a baby in her arms of about eighteen months. She held the baby in her arms and began asking for mercy, that she be shot first and leave the baby alive.
From behind the fence there were Poles who raised their hands,ready to catch the baby. She was about to hand the baby over to the Poles. He took the baby from her arms and shot her twice, and then took the baby into his hands and tore him as one would tear a rag. (Italicized words are those Reznikoff chose.)
Here are two further extracts from Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff:
Once the commander of a camp had eight of the strongest among
placed in a large barrel of water,
saying that they did not look clean,
and they had to stand in this barrel naked for twenty-four hours.
In the morning, other Jews had to cut away the ice:
the men were frozen to death.
In this camp-and in others also-
they had an orchestra of Jews
who had to play every morning and evening
and whenever Jews were taken to be shot.
In one such camp,
the orchestra had all of sixty men.
Among those who had hidden themselves
were four women and a little girl of about seven
hiding in a pit-a dugout covered with leaves;
and two S.S. men went up to the pit and ordered them to
blank come out.
“Why did you hide?” they asked
and began to beat the women with whips.
The women begged for their lives:
they were young, they were ready to work.
They were ordered to rise and run
and the S.S. men drew their revolvers and shot all five;
and then kept pushing the bodies with their feet
to see if they were still alive
and to make sure they were dead
shot them again.
At the International Memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau there is a plaque inscribed with the following words:
For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity,
where the Nazis murdered
about one and a half
men, women, and children,
from various countries
Today Auschwitz is the symbol of the Holocaust. This is the address given today by the director of the Auschwitz Memorial, Dr Piotr Cywinski, at the event to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp :
They expected the worst – not the unthinkable.
Can the pain of a victim from seventy years ago become our heritage today?
– I do not know. But we don’t have another choice.
It was on this very pain that we had to build the post war era. We therefore have to listen closely and feel what has already not happened to us. Our imaginations are still unable to fathom this,
Just as the imagination of the people of those times did not fathom this.
Night, night without end. No dawn comes.
Auschwitz is not a source of strength. If anyone came here to to feel strength, wisdom, catharsis
– they are wrong.
Auschwitz is darkness, destruction, annihilation.
This is why it takes on the form of a warning, a horrid warning.
We still cannot cope with Auschwitz as we cannot save [human] face, at the same time consenting to hatred, contempt, antisemitism, and first and foremost our daily indifference.
This is why Auschwitz is so frightening.
Today, it no longer awakens the demons, it awakens the conscience.
And this conscience – accuses each and everyone of us.
We, the dead, accuse.
(Anonymous Czech Jewess)
The survivors. You – the living – in your memories carrying the visages of those murdered.
We thank you – Dear Friends – for your difficult words of warning, for your fear, and for your hope. For everything that you told us about us. Today we have to become mature, adults
carrying further all that which your words have sown in our memories.
This often feels too overwhelming, but we don’t have and will not have another choice.
We have a dark premonition because we know.
It would seem that the world should stay different for good.
That no one should be innocently killed.
It would seem that we can no longer propagate hatred, that no one is going to try to change borders by force. It would seem that indifference and passiveness should stir disgust.
We have, however, so many times seen that the remembrance has not yet matured in us.
It happened, therefore it can happen again… It can happen anywhere.
Even today we have the right to be afraid.
But we also have the obligation to be responsible.
“Because we know”.
As our future is rooted in remembrance.
And when we forget, we are not destroying an image of the past, but the palpable shape of our future.
“Never again” is not a political programme, but a personal decision.
It means – never again because of me, never again in me, never again with me.
I believe that never again with all of us.
Tadeusz Smreczynski: ‘life could only regain sense if you try to do good to other people’
Also among the BBC programmes marking Holocaust Memorial Day was Touched by Auschwitz, which consisted of moving stories from remarkable people – survivors of Auschwitz. If a film on this subject can be said to be beautiful this one certainly was. It was directed by Laurence Rees (who has produced fine documentaries on this subject in the past – including The Nazis: A Warning from History, Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution). In this film he spoke to six Auschwitz survivors along with their friends and families. Together, these sequences filmed in Jerusalem, Chicago, London, Bavaria, Krakow and Tel Aviv provided a compelling portrait of the problems, challenges and triumphs that six different individuals have experienced since the war as a result of their time in Auschwitz.
For example, Halina Birenbaum arrived at a kibbutz in 1947, only to find that some of the Jewish settlers who’d come to Palestine before the war weren’t interested in her story. For them the narrative of the Holocaust wasn’t just disturbing, it was a disgrace. “You just followed like sheep,” she quoted them as saying. “You didn’t defend yourselves. Why didn’t you defend yourselves? What happened to you?”
Max Epstein, meanwhile, ended up as a professor of electrical engineering in Chicago, and decided to keep the details of his experiences from his children. When they asked about his tattoo he said, “This is a number, so if I lose my arm they’ll know where to return it.” From his time in Auschwitz, remarkably, he learned the power of kindness. “It was very dark,” he said, “and the smallest act of kindness appeared like a large spark. I choose to remember the sparks.”
Hermann Hollenreiner, was not an ‘Aryan’ German as his name suggests, but a Gypsy. He spoke with desperate honesty: ‘I can’t understand how I’m still alive.’
As Tim Dowling wrote in his review for the Guardian:
What came across most strongly in this film was the lack of a single strategy for recovering from such extreme trauma. Some clung to their faith in God, some abandoned it. Most made their own way. How do you extract meaning from a life so damaged, so curtailed? “I felt that life could only regain sense if you try to do good to other people,” said Tadeusz Smreczynski, who went on to study medicine in Krakow and wound up practising as a doctor just a few minutes away from Auschwitz.
Above all, the survivors shared a determination to pass something on to the third, and in some cases fourth generations. “They should remember who they are,” said Frieda Wineman, 91. “And they should live up to it.”
On the ArtsDesk website, Tom Birchenough highlighted the story of Tadeusz Smreczynski.:
As a political prisoner Polish inmate may have spent the shortest time in Auschwitz, though he narrowly avoided execution before being transferred away. But in age he’d ended up as close to it as you could get, living an unsettling ten-minute drive away down the road later named “Victims of Auschwitz Street”. His camp experience had taught him that “life could only regain sense if you try to do good to other people”, and he’d trained as a doctor, though refusal to join the Communist Party had hindered his career.
He’d his tattoo cut away, though admitted that “those things can’t be removed by any scalpel”. It brought home the variety of strategies for survival that had been chosen by those with whom Rees spoke. Their sheer resilience spoke for itself: these were no longer “victims”, like that street Polish name, but, akin to Max’s new grandchild, examples of “victory over Hitler”. Who were ready warn us about today, as well as invoke the instruction, “Live up to it!”. Max described himself as a 150% winner, because he’d created generations that would follow him: there was triumph in his voice. None of them, or us, needed Sam West’s gentle narration to remind us of the other 1.1 million people who were “touched” by Auschwitz, and never left it.