Today, as I type, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
If you’re European, you will know the drill. We are to pause and reflect on its awfulness. Quietly watch the frail human memories from another time and remember not to forget. Yet the name represents an imponderable crime, too large in scope to give proper attention; our imaginations can glance off its vast surface, so monumental is the scale of human suffering and cruelty it covers. We see the rags of historic figures, and possibly picture the grey uniforms of the Nazi bad guys in war films.
As another memorial date, today may in fact be the last time living survivors of the death camp will gather in significant numbers to stand on the now safely railed-off edge of the epic, aching, ghastly pit of its mark on history. So we may be at a collective turning point in the way we look into that void, as it becomes an experience not told from living memory, by people who actually climbed out of it. After all, it is a chasm that opens all the way to hell, and the stench of it is beyond our clean modern tolerance on a normal Tuesday afternoon. One million individuals executed in that one place alone is beyond our ability to respectfully acknowledge in just 144 fleeting characters.
I quietly wonder. How can each new, more distant generation re-purpose this mortally defining moment for the 20th century?
I glimpsed a TV debate headline somewhere this week. Something like “Is it time to move on from the Holocaust?’.
The simple answer is: No.
Even those who were there surely had to find their own ways of living away from the memory of it; I wonder how could they live at all otherwise? How does anyone rebuild their ability to live after experiencing deathly horror? Well, there are at least 300 answers to that gathered in the little Polish town near the Czech border today alone. And it is a question facing humanity every day.
Of course there is one way to thoughtfully see this. The evidence of true fascist thinking that the camps like Auschwitz betrayed at their liberation, is reverently more valuable to humanity than a hoard of Nazi gold. Those dumbfounding piles of shoes… are almost piles of treasure – something that might crown our wisdom if we’re able to recognise what they cost. They are the gemstones of individual lives, of personal stories, caught up in a vast existential vortex of history, plundered by murdering ideology unchallenged. Wealth to invest in some concrete-solid freedoms, if we’re prepared to cement them into the foundations of our future. And live with some poetic humanitarian hyperbole.
For what they are is a dire warning, we are reminded. One of the biggest that modern history has given humanity.
If ordinary people like you and me, twitting about with cat pictures on our phones in 2015, or pottering to the bakery with the kids in 1935, do not stand with the outsider and the marginalised, ordinary people like you and me may one day be systematically murdered. Because no-one challenged the system. It is the sacred epitaph towering over Europe, booming its solemn directions from behind as we look forward. The road from here to there might seem like a long, winding one, no simple autobahn of ideology with large clearly-schwastika-ed signs any more, but we still have to know where we’re heading and choose to turn off that road, they say, frighteningly.
It is a story, a thought and a lesson so big, we can’t properly take it in, or easily take it to heart. It is simply too monumental. Too fearful, too big, too deathly. Too concrete-certain, too black & white newsreel simple for a complex, compromised today. Have we ever had so much to think about as today?
I have just finished a mighty tome on the life of Britain’s King Edward VII, Bertie. At the turn of the last century, monarch for just nine years, dying barely before the outbreak of the most formative war in Europe, he was considered unusual for having no discomfort with Jewish people. He may not have been a truly modern man in our sense of the word – he was a bleedin’ king, for pete’s sake – but in this he was stand-out progressive.
Think of that. How normal it was to be suspicious of anyone Jewish in British society. In European society. In Victorian times. In Edwardian times. How Bertie was periodically mocked in the media at home for having Jewish friends and thinking this was nothing unusual. If the true cause of the second world war in which the Nazis came to power and built the death camps like Auschwitz was really unresolved issues from the first world war, then it was as much about unresolved social crimes committed by millions of ordinary Europeans at a very low but present level, as it was hefty war reparations or lack of political partnership. Hitler stoked residual anti-Semitism into a fire to fuel his own psychotic ends, to a degree that would likely have terrified you and me into silence. But he did not have to invent every lurking corner of his context.
If we turn a blind eye to the background anti-semitism around us today, we’re not helping our own generation, our own society, to build a safely free future. It is our kids who will suffer when they can no longer simply be themselves. It is not a once-only fix, a road we cement in and use forever, a monument to erect for all time in a garden of remembrance; the reverberations of the literal and figurative atom bombs at the end of WWII echoed for two generations, but the ripples will fade eventually. Unless we periodically bang the drum of memory. And build daily habitual rhythms into our living.
Over the last year, I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog. Things of such scale and severity filled the airwaves around me that I didn’t know how or why to attempt a comment any more. I ruminated only once I think on the outbreak of World War I. I said almost nothing about the Israel offensive on Gaza in the summer. I’ve been struck almost dumb by the murders of creatives in the offices of Charlie Hebdo at the start of this year. All are issues I have a personal issue in, in some little way. But what could I say.
One of the things that struck me was the different places my friends can be in about some issues, similar as we outwardly are. I wanted to launch a fusillade of criticism at Israel’s last strategic offensive, yet my Jewish friends reminded me of real people connected to the Jewish state’s future. I wanted to hurl invective at Islamofacism and post copies of the more offensive covers of Charlie Hebdo, yet my friends in Arab parts of the Middle East reminded me of real people connected with Islam. As vital as it is to the truth to call out hypocracy and crime and creeping bias in an organisation or a country, it is another to fire anger around at individuals standing next to you. It is inescapably complicated.
For me, it boils down to this. In your criticism, do you see policies or people?
A leader has to promote policies. But if he or she no longer sees people forming them, they will create, ultimately, prejudices.
There is no Them and Us. Not really. Just feels that way. Newsreels of every generation create such cartoons to keep things simple for our hurty heads. We paint ourselves so flatly into caricatures when our behaviours are beligerently bigoted and simplistic. And we should dare to reflect such graphic truth with mocking marks when it is the powerful behaving this way, but if we ever dare reduce whole people groups into a single comic character, we are surely reducing ourselves in the process. Revealing our own mock-worthy ignorance. A public figure’s public choices are fair game for comment or even derision; someone’s genetic social heritage is not. Not if you value your own.
We have to make our selves see things this way every day. I do. Cosy me. Every little ghetto wall in my behaviour I must try to challenge. We each must surely. And it must in no way whatsoever depend on how someone else sees me, or treats me. We must own this attitude as our own purpose. Our own identity, defined entirely by our own decisions.
If we lump all Jews together, we tacitly accept anti-Semitic fascism. If we lump all Muslims together, we tacitly accept another type of anti-Semitic fascism. If we give in to murderous attempts to silence our criticisms of outmoded imperialism, or sexism, or racism, or classism, or physicality, we tacitly submit to a Nazi-like view of the world. For they put all these people into the death camps and executed them – the gay, the disabled, the homeless, the nuancedly culturally different from their ideal. We wall up a million individuals with our comfortable distance from them, every day.
It isn’t so big we can’t take it in. It is a million pixels of individuals reforming to paint whole new contexts, by choosing to shine the colour they want to shine, and feeling no need whatsoever to make someone else shine the same colour. It isn’t even as big as a rally through a capital city. It is as big as my high street – do I see people around me, or do I see types of people?
In the 21st century, where the distance between all individuals is being reduced and reduced, diminishing the practical meaning of sweeping labels of country and culture that people fought wars over so vainly 70 years ago, that attitude is just not fit for purpose.