We Know Now

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Auschwitz-II Birkenau, July 2015. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Among the most compelling of the exhibits at the Auschwitz Museum are the aerial photographs of the Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz Camps taken by Allied reconnaissance in 1944 and early 1945. The images show the camps during some of their busiest – and bloodiest – periods of operation. If sufficiently magnified, it is possible to see groups of people walking from the trains to the crematoria and gas chambers. We can count the openings in the ceilings of the gas chambers of Crematoria II and III through which pellets of Zyklon-B were introduced. Visitors often leave, encouraged by their guides, with the sense that the world knew what was happening and remained silent.

A detail from an aerial photograph taken in August 1944. The red circle highlights the opening in the roof of the gas chamber of Crematorium II. The blue circle shows a group of deportees approaching the crematorium compound.

In fact, the truth is more complex. The images were taken using film cameras set to take constant exposures over many miles. The “target” of the surveillance was the chemical factory at Monowitz: built by prisoners in the adjoining Auschwitz III camp, the factory was built by the chemical combine IG Farben to produce synthetic rubber. At the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, and located in a coal-mining region, the site was tailor-made for such a plant. The availability of cheap labour – the SS charged a fee to use prisoner labour – meant that the project could be completed relatively quickly and on a short budget. Although the Bunawerke factory never produced any Buna (synthetic rubber) it was a strategic target. In fact, it was bombed four times: twice in August 1944, once in September, and once in December.

The bombing of Monowitz is one of the most contentious episodes in the history of WW2. Why, critics ask, could the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps not have been bombed as well? In fact, stray bombs from one of the raids did fall on Birkenau, as recorded by survivor testimonies. A conference was organised at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in the late 1990s, with a volume of proceedings published in 2000. A short summary of a complex debate breaks down as follows:

Firstly, knowledge of Auschwitz was both plentiful and of questionable accuracy. Reports by escaped prisoners such as Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler made clear that mass murder was being carried out. But rumours of death by electrocution or burning were not accurate, and their estimates of numbers were (understandably) excessive. To prisoners caught up in hell, the constant stream of arrivals and the smoking chimneys must have made it impossible to say for certain more than that a very large number of people were being killed. Even perpetrators were unsure of the numbers. At Nuremberg, Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, estimated that the dead in the camp totalled around 3,000,000. Research conducted in Poland in the early 1990s, however, demonstrated conclusively that approximately 1,500,000 people were deported to the camp, and of those around 1,100,000 were killed. But in 1944, at the closing stages of the war, the facts were unclear and resources at a premium. Auschwitz was at the very edge of operational range, and required a dangerous mission back and forth across Germany.

Secondly, there is the question of technological capability. The key idea here is Circular Error Probable: the likelihood of a given bomb hitting within a reasonable range of its target. Accustomed to footage of munitions that can virtually turn corners to match traffic lights, we forget that in 1944 a bomb was simply explosives set to blow up when it completed its vertical drop. To hit the crematoria, or the railway lines, or any other target, was difficult. The controversial Allied strategy of bombing German cities was employed because the technology made precision difficult unless flying by day – which increased the risk to aircrew. And this is before any thought is given to the likely cost in prisoner lives of any full-scale raids on the camp. Survivors may say that they would have welcomed it – but I am glad they are here to tell the story, rather than blown to smithereens by Allied bombs.

Thirdly, the intellectual framework did not exist to really comprehend what was in the images, even if someone had looked. It had not, as Primo Levi wrote, yet “been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist”. There was plentiful information about the Holocaust in both the popular press and the corridors of power, but it was not acted upon in the most basic way. It was not accepted as fact that the German intention was to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Assertions that it was, in the minds of decision-makers, belonged in newspaper headlines and lurid magazine articles, not the formulation of policy. A significant measure of antisemitism also contributed. Surely, some argued, this was just Jewish imagination at work, a persecution complex caught up in the war? In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress sent a telegram to Sidney Silverman MP, the WJC representative in London:

The Riegner Telegram (UK National Archives FO371/30917)

The ensuing five-day correspondence among officials acknowledged “numerous reports of large scale massacres of Jews” but focused on attempting to verify Riegner’s identity (“Eastern Dept. have no knowledge of Mr Riegner”) and ended with the following remark:

I do not see how we can hold up this message much longer, although I fear it may provoke embarrassing repercussions. Naturally we have no information bearing on this story.

Later in 1942, the activist Rev. James Parkes despaired that “The continued silence of the government in relation to the massacres is evidence of the strength in places of power of reactionary forces – from whom we have nothing to hope.”

But how then can we explain the pictures? Surely these images show that we knew exactly what was happening? There it is, in black and white, neatly labelled.

In fact, this is misleading. As I said above, the photographs were taken on huge rolls of film, covering many miles. The images of Auschwitz and Birkenau were at the end of these reels, after the “target” images of Monowitz. During the war, they were overlooked because analysts were not detailed to look. The images we are familiar with were only produced in the 1970s, when two CIA analysts named Dino A. Brugioni and Robert G. Poirier examined the images and conducted a retrospective analysis, uncovering many of the details that strike the visitor or viewer today. As they said in their report:

Extract from Dino A. Brugioni and Robert G. Poirier, “The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex” (CIA, 1979)

In a variety of ways therefore, both technical and historical, not only were the images not looked at until the 1970s, they could not have been looked at earlier. The report also served another purpose than historical reconstruction. The pointed reference to the CIA’s photo-reconnaissance capability was meant to be understood most directly in Moscow: the clear message being that Russian military installations could be spotted, analysed and potentially destroyed.

Why is this important today? A BuzzFeed article prompted these reflections: an article about the treatment of the Uighurs in China. BuzzFeed used commercial technology to identify 268 sites, and was able to confirm that 92 of these are detention centres using documents, eyewitness testimony and academic research. Authorities in the region termed the claims of persecution as “a groundless lie”: “the issue concerning Xinjiang is by no means about human rights, religion or ethnicity, but about combating violent terrorism and separatism”. Some of these sites are sufficient to hold 10,000 people. The testimonies of those who have emerged from the camps to tell the tale are horrendous.

One of the detention sites identified by BuzzFeed.

This month, an open letter was sent to the government by more than 70 faith leaders, calling on the UK government “to investigate these crimes, hold those responsible to account and establish a path towards the restoration of human dignity.” The letter invoked the Holocaust, once more demanding that “Never Again” finally – this time – have some meaning.

In 1945, Primo Levi wrote that his liberators were oppressed by the evidence of the crime, “the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man feels at another man’s crime.” But this crime in many ways had only just been introduced into the “world of things that exist”. The legal measures of the late 1940s, the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were landmarks, acknowledging for the first time that rights are human and transnational, that mass death is wrong, and that leaders cannot hide behind the state to evade responsibility. James Fawcett, one of the British contributors to these laws (and grandfather of our current Prime Minister), said in 1961 that their purpose was to ensure that “Sharpeville, Angola, Tibet, are all matters of international concern, though they happen within the jurisdiction of a particular state.” That these lessons were learnt while mired in the hypocrisy and crime of Empire does not detract from the imaginative, moral, ethical and philosophical leap they were.

But that leap was made for us. Now we know. Now, it is other words from Primo Levi that we must remember, before we once more say “Never Again”: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” It is happening again: once more, as Levi wrote, the lords of death are waiting by the trains. It is our job to try and stop them leaving the station. Knowing is not enough: now we must act.

Between the Peak and the Abyss: Conspiracy and Superstition

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Albert Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, as an allegory of French society under German occupation. Reading from 2020, however, it also describes with some accuracy the social impact of an actual epidemic. The sense of time suspended, of activity deferred, of relationships interrupted: “As it was a case of marking time, many hundreds of thousands of people were still kicking their heels for endless weeks […] nothing more important happened than this great marking of time.”

And into this space come comparisons, analogies and theories, to fill the empty time and make sense of the chaos and disruption, invented by the mendacious to manipulate the confused. Camus lists the different types and it is impossible not to recognise the stories in the newspapers that blow down our streets, their relevance superseded by new developments.

Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation. Nostradamus and Saint Odile were thus consulted daily and never in vain. What remained common to all the prophecies was that, in the last resort, they were reassuring. The plague, however, was not.

I wrote a while ago about the parallel infodemic coursing through society, as we all struggle to make sense of the senseless, to order the chaotic. Graphs, charts, dashboards, bulletins, maps, timelines: every manner of device intended to help synthesise and distill the rush of events into orderly narrative and discrete data sets. And as Camus said, these are reassuring: not because of their content but because of their form. A viral contagion can be truly controlled only on the page or the screen: every graphic contributes to our sense that because the situation can be described, it can be (or is being) managed. Every rumour, false hope or faked accusation contributes to a sense that the sky is falling.

For this reason, it is unsurprising that conspiracy theories have been part of the year. In March and April, telephone engineers were assaulted and mobile masts set on fire by people who believed the virus was connected to the 5G network upgrade. Paradoxically, they also think that the electronic media is a good place to promote this: I suspect these people are (because things are their opposite) the most fevered users of electronic devices. They seem to patrol the virtual world as they might have once walked the streets, howling about Armageddon and inveighing against the shadows.

I have seen the low-tech versions too, though. Walking through a locked-down Kentish Town, I saw a flyer pushed through the letterbox of a charity shop, its quality print daring the reader to dismiss it for the ravings it contained. I have seen other slogans and warnings, scrawled on signs and bus shelters, painted on doors. They are the inevitable detritus spawned by confusion and despair. And just as surely as the maps of where the virus has taken the greatest toll, they are indicators of deprivation: warnings and fears given venom by resentment. They are the signs (as in Camus) of “those who are looking for reasons and who are afraid.”

In such a context, it was inevitable that antisemitic conspiracy theories should have a resurgence. The Community Security Trust has published a report on the antisemitic tropes and canards revivified by the pandemic. From positing a Jewish conspiracy behind the virus, to using the virus to celebrating Jewish deaths, to using the virus to kill Jews, all the classic elements of the oldest hatred are present. Whether from the right (QAnon) or the left (AntiVaxx) the elements are tiresomely predictable, and make it hard to tell one from the other. As Robert Eaglestone has observed about varieties of Holocaust denial: “these distinctions are rarely fixed, as they demand too much consistency from the world of bigotry and false argument that these people inhabit.”

A survey of the Twitter feed of Piers Corbyn, a notable member of the conspiratorial elite, shows the usual distinctions of politics breaking down. Combining the family pastimes of preaching to the choir and never changing his mind, he at once quotes Toby Young and his band of right-wing “Lockdown Sceptics”, argues that Black Lives Matter is a conspiracy funded by big business, claims that man-made climate change is a myth, and that vaccines are designed to control us; and that George Soros, “Rockefeller” or Bill Gates is behind it all.

The left-wing “commentator” Kerry-Anne Mendoza yesterday peddled a more belt-and-braces version of the way the Holocaust can be folded into these discourses of hatred. Not as a conspiracy theory, but just as a lazy juxtaposition. As though the death camps were a punchline rather than an atrocity.

Similarly, the mural Freedom for Humanity by the artist Mear One has been doing the rounds in meme form. This is an image even Piers Corbyn’s brother Jeremy belatedly acknowledged as “deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic” – some years after invoking “Rockerfeller’s” [sic] attack on Diego de Rivera in its defence. Like Mein Kampf, (a major source text for Jewish conspiracy theories) these ideas always find Jews responsible for the evils of the day, placing grimly-eroticised spectres and fantasies of “Jewish influence” where the facts should go.

Into this volatile mixture of paranoia, half-truth and pure fantasy, the FBI yesterday decided to publish its records on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the antisemitic conspiracy ur-text, without commentary or qualification. When I last checked, the material had been retweeted 16,700 times. By comparison, its belated clarifications (below) had barely been noticed. A lie is, as ever, twice round the world before the truth gets its boots on.

The resurgence of conspiracy theories and panic in a period of intense anxiety and confusion is not a surprise. If you want a funny and informative introduction to why this is the case, follow Marlon Solomon (@supergutman) whose monologue “A Lizard’s Tale” is a chilling and hilarious primer in the back-and forth between claim and counter-claim. Dave Rich (@daverich1) noted in an article published earlier this year that “if it is true that Jews play a central role in conspiracy theories, it is also true that the concept of a conspiracy plays a central role in the history of antisemitism”. Conspiracies and antisemitism are linked by methodology, purpose and personnel.

But nor, it should be underlined, do these theories and fantasies restrict themselves to antisemitism. As documented by the charity TellMama, COVID-19 has prompted attacks and libels on Muslim communities. Stonewall documents the impact of the pandemic on LGBT individuals and communities. As so often, the events of this year show that hatred knows few distinctions and appeals to no logic other than the belief that since the individual is powerless in the face of events, those events must be controlled by the powerful. And since there is nothing more powerful than that which provokes fear, the two must be identical. “It is very tiring to be a plague victim,” wrote Camus, “but it is still more tiring not to want to be one.” And given time to brood, the most illogical solutions acquire the clarity of mathematical proofs. But for the conspiracist, as for their cousin, the perfect Orwellian product of totalitarianism, if the right person says it, 2+2=5.

So what can we do against this tide of reckless hate and thoughtless invective? As Camus recognised, the purpose of these ravings is to provide reassurance against the unpredictable and invisible workings of fate. And like his hero (and unreliable narrator) Rieux, we have to recognise that the answers are not glamorous: “this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” We carry on, we do our best, we remember that common humanity and common confusion are often the same thing, and we do our jobs, however small, to make the world better.

A Tragedy of Errors

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Autumn leaves on a social distancing sign in Alexandra Palace, London. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, August 2020. More of my photography can now be seen at http://www.framingthemoment.gallery

The chaotic and careless handling of this summer’s exam results has illustrated (along with so much else), the rank inequality of our society and the almost comatose carelessness of our government. If you want expert and incisive analysis on this particular tragedy of errors, then you should follow either (but ideally both) @debrakidd or @teacherhead on Twitter and read their recent posts (they also have WordPress sites – see links below). The piece by Tom Sherrington in particular is a rare sighting on the internet: measured and thoughtful reconsideration of a view in light of developments. Debra Kidd offers a passionate analysis of why the disaster really wasn’t much different from business as usual, and why therefore it needs to change.

I don’t have the standing to criticise either of them, nor would I wish to. Their insights and advice have been inspiring and helpful in my journey as an educator. On this occasion, though, their writing and thinking has prompted a few thoughts in response.

Firstly, the piece by Tom Sherrington. As he makes frequent reference to in the piece, he assumed that common sense would prevail, or at least be applied at some point. This is an alluring thought but, since “They can’t be that stupid, can they?” has been close to infallible as a predictor of this government’s actions, perhaps slightly misplaced.

Sherrington’s uncharacteristic lapse is understandable: my brother’s drum practice this week may have knocked him off his game. (I’m not joking: see my Twitter for the exchange.) Also, as a highly intelligent and informed expert, his expectation that basic common sense would be applied was, well, reasonable. It turns out, of course, that not only was common sense and expertise apparently not sought, it wasn’t applied when literally delivered to those who needed to act on it. See the devastating critique of the OFQUAL algorithm by Dr Huy Duong, submitted in evidence to Parliament earlier this year, here.

Two meta-thoughts. First, when the historians of the future come to write the history of 2020, there may be a debate about the degree to which ministers listened to expert advice from SAGE. I would suggest that the decision to ignore Dr Duong’s analysis may be instructive in understanding the governing culture. This government, despite being presented with progressively more complex problems, is still “tired of experts” and only allows them a voice if they are docile. The disappearance from view of openly dissenting scientists from the daily press briefings if they ventured opinions in line with medical training, published law and common sense, is a chilling insight into the degree to which the government cannot brook dissent. For professors of medicine and public health committed to the public good, outward conformity may be an acceptable (if high) price to pay for ensuring they retain some purchase on events, but it is not a choice they should be asked to make.

Secondly, I wonder if a meta-understanding of our current plight is also bound up with the notion of common sense. It is certainly bound up with the sense that panic is always an inappropriate reaction and that everything is manageable. But, if quickly mastered, panic is a very useful indication that events are either imminently or actually out of control. Someone who doesn’t panic a little in the face of a global pandemic or blighting a generation’s life-chances perhaps has yet to fully get their arms around the problem. As Basil Fawlty responds when told by Polly not to panic: “What else is there to do?!”

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that Fawlty Towers is a model for responsible government. Governments led by chancers, sociopaths and inadequates (though the vogue in global leadership) rarely make good decisions. The chronically dissociated always think in terms of brutality, and those struggling to win approval care more about appearance than outcome.

In Debra Kidd’s case, my objection is slightly more technical. She suggests that a return to modular exams and AS levels would have averted this crisis. This is true, but the price of a cohort with (some) concrete results this year would be a cohort next year with nothing: after all, their AS levels would have to have been cancelled and calculated by algorithm – along with next year’s results, which are unlikely to escape the effects of COVID. The government response has been to multiply problems rather than solve them, but another “peacetime” solution would have had different problems. The basic problem with exams as currently constituted is that they are in general simply a final chance for students to prove spreadsheets wrong. When that final chance was removed, disaster was always a strong possibility.

More broadly, the consequences of AS levels were not all positive. I would suggest that the stress of three consecutive years of important assessments contributed materially to the sharp rise in mental health problems among British young people in the first fifteen years of this century. I am also not sure that increased testing is an answer to a failure of grading. But her central point about the negligence and cruelty of the current system is inarguable.

We need – as in so many areas – a more interesting and comprehensive rethink than endlessly switching between linear and modular qualifications. I’d like to see, in my own subject of History, a more actively collaborative externally marked coursework process. But everyone has a wishlist.

Whatever the repercussions of #alevels2020, I hope that both Tom Sherrington and Debra Kidd are among the experts who lead that process of change. Hopefully with a very different government, committed to finding sensible, informed answers to the problems that COVID exposes with such grim regularity.

Meme Fever

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2020.

The era of COVID-19 has seen two processes of contagion. The first is, of course, the disease itself, with its terrible toll on individuals, communities and nations. The second, however, is what the WHO and others have termed an infodemic: defined very precisely a couple of weeks ago by a working group.

An infodemic is an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that occurs during an epidemic. In a similar manner to an epidemic, it spreads between humans via digital and physical information systems. It makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. (Tangcharoensathien et al., 2020)

I’m working on a more detailed piece about the infodemic, to go alongside a collection of my photos from this year. In the meantime, however, I’ve been looking at the memes shared in my social media echo chambers. Sometimes they make me laugh but as a class of discourse they make me profoundly uneasy.

Memes are directly compared to viruses by the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski in his book, The Rules of Contagion (2020). He notes the problems posed by “simplistic anecdotes and ineffective solutions” for disease control and begins the book with an account of how he (accidentally) caused “a small outbreak of misinformation.”

The irony is that memes are simplistic anecdotes masquerading as panaceas. Like viruses, memes have no function but their own reproduction with no regard for the health of the host. Matters are further complicated by the fact that social media offer a perfect environment for them to thrive. Back in the day, “Frankie Says” was a meme, but it’s harder to edit a t-shirt than it is to share something online. One meme in particular recently caught my eye.

This meme is part of longer and bigger debates about education, race and identity. I do not claim any priority for this meme’s importance other than the fact I’ve spent my adult life teaching and learning about the Holocaust and for that reason find it deeply problematic, educationally and philosophically. My experience allows me to locate the sources of my ire because I have expertise: itself a suggestion that the reduction of history to lessons without content is not very practical. But I digress.

Firstly, the idea that the second and third parts of the statement can be accomplished without the first is problematic. Without the murder of six million Jews being remembered, the second statement makes no sense: what is the “it” that was required? And in the third statement, the “history repeating itself” is the murder of six million Jews that apparently the author thinks is optional to remember.

Second, and much more problematic, is the weasel formulation of the first statement. If the word “only” or “just” were added, the sentiment might make more sense (though as I’ve just explained I don’t think it really does). But as written it comes very close not to suggesting that education cannot be reduced to simply memorising (which of course is true and something that all good teachers work hard to ensure) but that education equals not remembering the murder of six million Jews.

This ambiguity is difficult because with a negative reading of an oddly formed sentence, the meme seems to be suggesting that instead of anchoring our understanding of the world to historical facts and debates, it should instead come from belief in an unstated mechanism that led “ordinary Germans” to be “convinced that it was required”. Setting aside the complex historical debate about degrees of knowledge, cooperation, acceptance and resistance this dismisses (the author of the meme can’t be bothered so why should I?), the implication is that children should be “educated” in some unstated monocausal view. Another word for this is indoctrination.

One of the key aspects of indoctrination is ignoring facts in the interests of clarity: such as, for example, downplaying the importance of the victim group of “what happened”. The sleight-of-hand with which this example severs meaning from content (thus rendering it meaningless) is the primary source of my anger.

Ironically, the indoctrinated have historically been very bad at spotting the writing on the wall because, well, they were indoctrinated to believe it wasn’t important. Such a process seems to have taken place very imperfectly in Nazi Germany, chiefly because the Third Reich only lasted twelve years. The debate about why and how this happened, which the author of this meme either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about, is ongoing. But the desire to present children with “lessons” without evidence is certainly among the phenomena involved: along with ensuring that the benefits of oppression and murder were widely shared, and that perpetrators were placed in stressful, confusing situations with alcohol to dull the senses when reality could no longer be explained but simply avoided. But reiterating the nature of that reality is crucial, educationally, because without it, the question “Why is this important?” is hard to really answer.

Because, finally, let’s not forget that forgetting victims is only in the interests of the perpetrators. Himmler termed the murder of European Jewry “a glorious page in our history that can never be written”. Hitler asked “Who now remembers the Armenians?” This meme asks us to forget the Jews and replace them with an amorphous “victim” group that makes the “lessons” meaningless. The Nazis oppressed and murdered a whole range of groups and individuals, but to try and remove their primary victim group is an assault on memory and an abuse of education. Subject (the Nazis) verb (murdered) and object (six million Jews) are all required for any conclusions to have any relevance. This is true, by the way, in teaching anybody about anything. The nature of the offence is a fundamental part of teaching to understand the past and (hopefully) avoid its repetition.

This is just one meme in an ocean of memes. As in Hamlet’s soliloquy, it is tempting to think we can “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.” But this is a metaphor for futility. We are adrift and lost: what we can do (all we can do, perhaps) is sound out the ideas beneath the surface of individual examples in the hope we will find solid ground underneath.

Three Stories: Reflections on Lessons from Auschwitz

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Working as a Freelance Educator on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project is probably the most rewarding and important thing I do. When COVID-19 interrupted all our lives, I was part of the way through an exceptionally busy term with two visits completed and two to come. While this letter is addressed to one group in particular (with whom I was hoping to do a follow-up seminar) it is also meant for all the groups I’ve worked with.

The main gate to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, March 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth

Dear Group Five,

First, let me say that you were lovely. Bright, curious, open to learning new things, as groups so often are. It’s just one of the reasons I love working as an Educator on the project. But you had something else in addition: an emotional grasp of what the trip meant that I’ve only rarely encountered and a willingness to share that with me and each other that was beautiful and inspiring to work with.

I am, quite simply, gutted that I haven’t been able to complete my sections of your LFA journey. I was looking forward to hearing your reflections and insights and getting a glimpse of your next steps. I don’t think anyone knows when or how that may happen – though I’m sure the logistics team that do everything to manage the seminars and trips are working to answer that question. In advance of that possibility I want to share some ideas about the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead in your next steps. 

On a personal level I am wary of the idea of lessons. Michael Marrus, a distinguished scholar of the Holocaust and its history, wrote in his memoir that lessons are problematic, often telling us more about the person drawing the lesson than the past itself. I agree. But if we don’t try to draw lessons all we are left with is horror. So we have to strike a balance.

Certainly the idea that we can easily draw inspirational lessons is to be approached with caution. After hearing the testimony of Steven Frank, you identified that the most important factor in his survival was luck. Yes, he was young and healthy. Yes, he was resilient. Yes, he enjoyed the support of a parent who was also spared. But so did many others. As we are discovering, there is by definition no logic to catastrophe. Kings and beggars, villains and saints – all perished, the remainder saved only by capricious chance. As Primo Levi reminded us in his final book, The Drowned and the Saved:

We, the survivors, are not only a tiny but also an anomalous minority. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.

Shortly after finishing the book, Levi died, falling down the lift shaft of his apartment building in Turin. There is a debate about whether he fell or jumped. I’m not sure it matters: he had spent a lifetime contesting the verdict on himself he had pronounced in the camp, convicted in his own mind by the fact of his survival. He had acted as best he could, but remained concerned that this had still been at the cost of others’ survival. As the Polish writer (and Auschwitz inmate) Tadeusz Borowski described so well, the camp experience involved everyone in the crime. One could not emerge from it without, however inadvertently, being tarnished. Because if you survived, someone else hadn’t. This is why understandings of survivors now focus more on shame than guilt. Guilt might be contested, shame enters the skin, as indelible as a tattoo.

Lessons need to be approached carefully, mindful of the facts and their complexity. Perhaps the only lesson that really matters is to see humanity and potential in everyone. That’s why the emphasis is on rehumanising the victims: because you can’t see the humanity in a statistic. But you might glimpse it in a market square or the site of a synagogue. Or in the objects brought by deportees, proclaiming their faith in the simple belief that life would go on, with prayers to be said, meals to be cooked and teeth to be brushed. And the reassurance of house keys in their pocket.

And what of the perpetrators? Should we see them as human? The Polish epigram Ludzie ludziom zgotowali ten los, coined by the writer Zofia Nałkowska while investigating Nazi crimes, is often translated as “man prepared this fate for man”. Which I suppose has a certain cadence in English. But in fact it is literally “People prepared this fate for people.” The first translation may look better carved in a stone tablet but it detaches the actors from their actions. People did this: people like you, people like me. And as Jonathan Littell notes in his novel The Kindly Ones:

If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person.

So where do we go from here? Primo Levi wrote of the shame of the liberators as they entered the camp, their eyes downcast because this had happened, that such crimes had entered the world of existing things. A sense of shame at humanity is a common response to Auschwitz even today, 75 years later. And it is both correct and just the beginning of the story. You are it’s next step.

I often tell three stories when saying goodbye to groups.

The first is by Elie Wiesel and concerns the trial of God. A trial in the barracks of Birkenau where the inmates found God either guilty or absent. But then it was time for prayers, so they prayed. Sometimes we carry on despite our conviction that things are worthless – because sometimes that’s all there is to do.

Elie Wiesel was liberated in Buchenwald, aged sixteen. He spent a lifetime trying to explain Auschwitz but often resorted to the aphorism that “The truth of Auschwitz lies in silence”. It’s another good phrase that looks very impressive carved in stone. But here’s my question: if the truth of Auschwitz lies in silence, how do we tell it? 

The final story is from the late Clive James. On a visit to Munich on assignment for the Observer in 1983, he visited Dachau. His description is characteristically both beautiful and learned.

There is a place in Virgil’s Aeneid called the broken-hearted fields. Standing in that snow-covered space I could think of no better description. Nor was there any point in reproaching oneself for being unable to shed tears: if we could truly imagine what it was like, we would die of grief.

I often think of these words when I talk to students worrying about whether their next steps will be enough or hear educators fret about whether they covered everything, whether they did justice to the facts. Of course they didn’t, because nobody can. We ask you to bear witness to Auschwitz, knowing that it’s really beyond description; because it’s the attempt that matters.

And so I suggest one final lesson from Auschwitz: it is better to speak than to remain silent. And you must trust that whatever you say will be perfect – because the alternative is saying nothing at all. The rest, as Rabbi Hillel said, is commentary: now go study. 

Wishing you safe passage and a prosperous voyage in these troubled times. 

Jaime

London, March 2020

No Exit…

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Why will the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU not go away? In the last few months, since it became clear that the British drive to exiting the EU was unstoppable, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen positing this as some kind of answer.

I understand the appeal. In 2003, I waited with many others in a very crowded bar in Kraków to learn the result of the referendum on EU accession. I remember vividly the cheers of relief that accession would go ahead the following year. For many, that day, and the accession day itself, marked a return to Europe – if Poland had ever left. The national anthem records the March of troops in the Napoleonic wars “z ziemi Włoskiej do Polski”: from the lands of Italy to Poland. A series of events that began with the German and Russian invasions in 1939 had finally entered a new phase. One which promised to fulfil the dreams of 1989: that Poland could be a liberal democratic member of “the European club”.

In 2004, on the first day of membership, many of us watched the news reporting on Poland’s new “second capital” in Brussels. Even through the blur of a hangover (it was a very good party) I could feel the optimism.

Time has not been kind to that optimistic vision of Polish society, which will be the subject of a future piece. But it should remind us that membership of the EU can exert a powerful hold on the imagination of those denied it, and that many of those EU citizens whose future residency in the UK is now uncertain understand far better than we do why the EU is important. For us (ironically) the Polish poem of exile, Pan Tadeusz, may describe our plight:

Lithuania, my country, thou art like health; how much thou shouldst be prized only he can learn who has lost thee. To-day thy beauty in all its splendour I see and describe, for I yearn for thee.”

But we need to recognise that the EU isn’t a state. It can’t issue passports: only member states can do that, though the words “European Union” remind holders that collectivities come in different sizes. If we are to make the best of this awful mistake, we need to be clear what we are trying to hang on to.

We also need to be clear that some sort of boutique accommodation with reality for Remainers isn’t on offer. This is happening and we can’t engage with the facts if we are pursuing this kind of fantasy.

Secondly, we need to stop and think quite carefully about the idea of citizenship. Asking governments to create a lesser form of citizenship is open to abuse by issuing governments. What if the sentimental desire for Britons to try and deny the realities of this situation opened the door for them to decide that migrants and refugees could only apply for these kinds of documents? Do we want our own government to devise such a scheme?

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Britain’s exit from the EU is formalised in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day. The stripping of German citizenship from Jews was a fundamental attack on their rights, which made all the others easier to frame and justify in law. We should not be rushing to create second-class citizens, but instead insisting on the fullest citizenship for all, in the widest possible collectivity.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stand Together

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The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.

Yesterday, at a ceremony hosted by the Association of Jewish Refugees at Belsize Square Synagogue, I listened to testimony from Frank Bright, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Aged 91 and frail, he began by asking the room “Can you hear me?” The plaintive yet essential nature of his question took me aback for a moment.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to #StandTogether, but what does this mean? Are we listening?

In the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on the aboutholocaust.org project for the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO. The website contains a range of questions and answers which aim to explain key concepts and key events, and which illustrate them through the life stories of individuals.

As part of this, individuals who have been familiar names have also been developed into full personalities: the humanisation of the Holocaust is more than knowing a name, it is becoming aware of who that person was. The American science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card has many views which I profoundly reject, but his description in the novel Speaker for the Dead of how we should understand the people of the past continues to be something I try and live up to:

…to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story – what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know – and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.

To fulfil this task for the victims of the Holocaust would take centuries. The Book of Names produced by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, and kept in the Jewish Exhibition at Auschwitz, contains four million names of victims. Speaking to students, I point out that it actually commemorates three groups: those who died and whose names are recorded (Yad Vashem is taken from the Book of Isaiah and means “a monument and a name”); the space at its front where the other two million names we may never know, or even be able to guess at, should go; and the surviving family members whose pages of testimony are condensed into this vast artefact. And these are the barest of details: names, dates, place of birth, place of death (if this is even known). Their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and their regrets all went up, quite literally, in smoke. Telling some of their stories is the only way I can stand with them.

Three of the questions I have answered this year for aboutholocaust have stuck in my mind as I’ve reflected upon the idea of standing together.

Firstly, “Did you know that thousands of Jewish children left Germany without their parents to escape Nazi persecution?” The story of the Kindertransport is well-known and often used to justify a narrative of British moral superiority. The footage of the late Sir Nicholas Winton on That’s Life! in the 1980s, surrounded by the adults he saved as children, is incredibly moving. But for every child who came, many more did not, to say nothing of the parents who were forced to accept separation, usually permanent, as the price of securing their children’s safety. This week, as I sat in a room with some of them in Belsize Square, another of those children, Lord Dubs, was definitively frustrated in his campaign to ensure the safety and security of child refugees separated from their families. We must ask with whom we are standing, and why, and whether the cause of unity for its own sake is worth it. I stand with the children.

Secondly, “Why were there more Jews in Albania in 1945 than before WW2?” in 1938, the Jewish population of Albania was around 200 people. At the end of the war, it was around 1800, as Jews from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia arrived, in transit to the Americas, Turkey and Mandate Palestine. They had been kept safe by a code of toleration and hospitality called Besa, which means “to keep the promise”. As Lime Balla, one of the rescuers, described it:

We were poor – we didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews.

To stand together is not just a matter of symbolism. It is to act as well, whatever our circumstances, recognising the capacity that each of us has to do something.

Finally, the work on Rabbi Leo Baeck was inspiring. The leader of German Jewry in the 1930s, Baeck chose to stay with his community, as did Rabbi Regina Jonas, a pioneering female rabbi. Both were deported to Theresienstadt, from where Jonas was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in late 1944. I searched in vain for a statement of why they chose to stand together with their community, when in both cases they had options of hiding or escape. The closest I came was the prayer written by Baeck for Yom Kippur in 1935:

Our history is the history of the grandeur of the human soul and the dignity of human life. In this day of sorrow and pain, surrounded by infamy and shame, we will turn our eyes to the days of old. From generation to generation God redeemed our fathers, and he will redeem us in the days to come. We bow our heads before God and remain upright and erect before man. We know our way and we see the road to our goal.

In short, to stand together is sometimes all we can do, recognising that we do so on a road whose ultimate destination is impossible to know. So we must hold hands as we go.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2019: Torn from Home

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The four Stolpersteine, as we left them. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

Gunther Demnig works fast on the chilly pavement in Germany. His practiced hands prise up four cobbles from the street: a sharp crack precedes their slow easing from the ground to expose the sandy layer beneath. The stones are on the pavement beside him, gleaming in the pale winter light.

The stones are inscribed simply: names, dates, fate, as far as this can be known. The opening statement is baldly “Hier wohnt”: here lived. This is their last known address before being deported, though the building is certainly different: the city was heavily bombed. We do not know much of what happened after three of the family were deported in 1942. A postcard from the transit ghetto in Izbica in Poland, dated July 1942, was found by chance in a Berlin fleamarket in 2016. From Izbica, their destination is uncertain but was probably Sobibor: their stones now read “murdered in occupied Poland”. The exact moment of their death is unknown: there is certainly no marker for them where they perished.

The fourth stone concludes “Flucht nach England”: fled to England. This stone is for the eldest daughter of the family, who arrived in England on a domestic servant visa in August 1939, though she had never made a bed before. It is her descendants that mill around, blocking the pavement on this grey afternoon.

The arrival of the stones made the occasion seem real. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren took turns holding the stones, wrapped in their cloths, cradling them as though they were children. Photographs are taken, tears are wiped away, if not quite shed. We have gathered here for this moment from across the world, and the sight of the names has tautened the air in a way that nobody quite expected. Reluctantly giving the stones to the ground, the family stands back as Demnig pushes the stones into place and with a practiced hand embeds them, fills the gaps with mortar and with almost a flourish wipes away the excess from the inscriptions. The stones have taken their place, not only in the city of origin of those they remember, but in a network of similar memorials across Europe.

We stop, a few words are spoken, the breath of the speakers puffing in the cold air. Four of us arrived just in time for the ceremony and our suitcases are pushed neatly against the building, an odd echo of previous journeys. More words are spoken, some prayers are said, and then we load ourselves into taxis, leaving the stones. Some take a final few images. As I get in, I take a last distant shot of the four stones, together at last in the pavement, a spray of gravel marking the place where they have been worked into the landscape.

The historian Michael Burleigh wrote in 1996 that for many, “Nazism is not a matter of academic contemplation; but rather something which explains why they have no relatives or children; why they are chronically ill or have severe psychological problems; or why they live in Britain, Canada, Israel or the USA rather than Central Europe.” This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme, “Torn from Home”, has led me to revisit those words. Burleigh intended the words as a speculation on the state of what was then thought to be a rapidly “historicising” subject, one which might over time become a more “normal” part of history. I wonder whether in fact they have become more relevant than ever. The pictures last week of Holocaust survivors weeping over the burial of victims’ ashes from the collections of the Imperial War Museum suggests that perhaps the past is not yet done with surprises.

Witnessing Gunther Demnig lay Stolpersteine for this family while surrounded by the living proof of the eldest daughter’s survival brought home the sheer randomness of historical fate. Why was this young woman spared? What did she have to give up to do so? In his novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid wrote that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” For so many refugees, both then and now, this is no mere figure of speech. The only other marker of this family and its fate is on its sole survivor’s grave, far away in England, amid hedgerows and birdsong.

The journey also underlined that trauma dehomes and dispossesses those who suffer it, shunting the future into strange sidings. The sight of three women, red-haired as their grandmother was, contemplating a display in the school she attended until the racial laws forced her to leave, brought home how it could have been their school. Similarly, over lunch in the small town where the family originated, I noticed the red hair of many locals, along with the surreptitious glances, trying to decide how these faces could be both familiar and strange. In my mind, I wondered how they felt. Curious? Guilty? Sad? Anxious for this reminder of how their home had a past that perhaps threatens their sense of being at home? Living amongst the traces of horror requires either constant attention or deliberate avoidance. The memorial at the ruins of the town synagogue is lonely and neglected. One of our party tried to clear some of the grime but, realising that it was not his home to tend, gave up the attempt, his hand lingering on the stone a fraction longer than it might otherwise have done.

At the same time, the trip offered many chances to form new bonds. My partner’s mother has kept in touch with the local historian who initiated contact when the postcard from her grandparents came to light, as well as the present headmistress of her mother’s school. The bright and curious current students asked informed questions about how flight from home had shaped their fellow former student. She was a migrant, so are some of them, even though second or even third generation. Perhaps she offered hope that new beginnings can be restorative, a chance to rehome oneself. Perhaps the visit also confirmed that return and connection was an option, that doors once entered through could remain open, or at least ajar.

In these turbulent days, when it seems as though Britain is hell-bent on casting itself adrift, the visit was also a chance to reflect on the meaning of movement. My partner’s grandmother must have made a journey very like ours, through Belgium and then either France or the Netherlands. But unlike us, who showed our passports once and then tucked them away again, she had to endure the border crossings of an earlier Europe, her passport stamped with a red J, explaining to anyone who demanded her papers why she was making the journey. The philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Barcelona in 1940, convinced he was to be sent back to France and the German occupation. Free movement was not acquired cheaply, and we have neglected the multiple meanings of that “freeness”. We are so accustomed to the simplicities of the modern world that we have forgotten they are privileges, not rights, and as such incur duties.

The late Elie Wiesel wrote a story of the final Passover in Sighet, the city in Romania where he grew up. His father brought a stranger to their table, “a poor Polish Jewish refugee who had seen too often and too close the victory of death over man and his prayers.” At the point in the Seder where it is traditional to open the door for the prophet Elijah, the stranger said he would perform the task, and promptly vanished. Wiesel writes that a few weeks later he saw the stranger again, on the transport bound for Auschwitz. Wiesel concludes:

Today I know what I didn’t know then: at the end of a long trip that was to last four days and three nights he got out in a small railway station, near a peaceful little town, somewhere in Silesia, where his fiery chariot was waiting to carry him up to the skies. Isn’t that enough proof that he was the Prophet Elijah?

The tearing from home leaves jagged edges in the heart. We must remember this, and that every new arrival comes from somewhere; and ask how can we know who we are turning away?

Everyday witness

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Image credit: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

About a year ago, a Religious Studies GCSE student of mine and I were discussing martyrdom. She asked if there were Jewish martyrs. I replied that no, not really, but if she wanted an alternative viewpoint, she should ask the organiser of her synagogue refreshment rota and see what their response was.

We laughed at the time, but that now seems rather hollow, in the wake of the attack last week during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The deaths of eleven members of that community in such a violent and senseless manner has shocked and saddened people all over the world, both Jews and non-Jews.

One story described how the Orthodox chevra kadisha, or burial society, had held a vigil outside the crime scene where the victims’ bodies remained while police investigated. Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who runs the burial society, was quoted as saying “These are people who were killed because they were Jewish, they are bodies of holy martyrs.”  

Along with many others, I have been shocked to silence by the tragedy. I hesitate, however, before the word martyrs. With its origin in Greek, the word originally meant witness, but has come to mean (according to the Cambridge English Dictionary) “a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs, and is often admired because of it”. The American Merriam-Webster offers “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion”. The Oxford definition is “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs”.

While I accept that language is fluid and evolving, the weight of the dictionary definitions seems to be that a martyr has agency in their death: something which is hard to say of those killed last week. They did not choose to be attacked, nor did they sacrifice themselves voluntarily: they were murdered when they should have been safe, in a place which should have offered sanctuary.

The issue of how to talk about the victims of suffering and persecution is a central aspect of my work as a Holocaust educator. Martyr has become a common way of describing Jewish victims, at least partly because of the Holocaust.

Many memorials describe those killed by the Nazis and their collaborators as martyrs. I recently attended a funeral at the main Orthodox Jewish cemetery near London and the memorial to the Holocaust there characterises the dead in this way. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was founded as the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority: it still frames Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day for remembering the Holocaust, in this way, as ‘Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day’.

But Kiddush Hashem, to die for the sanctification of G-d’s name, is not quite martyrdom. Jewish law is clear that Jews are not permitted to commit murder, incest, or blasphemy under any circumstances – if the choice is between doing these things and death, then death has to be accepted. Otherwise, models of resistance emphasise that pikuach nefesh, preserving the soul, is preferable: the same principle that means the ill and infirm can break even the most solemn fasts if they need to; and kiddush ha’chayim, sanctification of life, enjoins Jews to aspire to meaningful survival: by learning, educating and recording.

Working as an educator, I have found devising and running sessions exploring some of the different ways in which Jews attempted not just to survive, but survive as Jews, inspiring and moving. The neat dichotomy of martyrs and heroes into which many books and resources still, almost unconsciously, divide the victims, neglects the diversity and variety of the – often very ordinary – heroism involved. Those caught up in the Holocaust found food, raised and educated children, and loved, and learned – in the face of implacable, reckless hate. The Nazis didn’t care if people were good Jews, bad Jews, old Jews, young Jews or any other descriptor: their aim was simply, as the attacker is said to have shouted before opening fire last week, that “All Jews must die”.

The victims of the Holocaust also, however, probably also made mistakes, forgot their obligations, and failed to live up to their best imagining of themselves. This, after all, is much of what being an everyday, ordinary human is.

And it is in that everyday ordinariness that the horror of last week resides. As I understand it, a baby-naming ceremony had just been held. Early in morning services, before (as the rabbi later wryly commented) most of those with busy lives and large families had managed to arrive. Instead, the victims were older, lonelier, more vulnerable, perhaps depending on the synagogue for much of the structure of their daily lives. This was not a heroic choice to assert identity, but a mundane choice to make their way to shul through the drizzle, shrug off their coats, and engage in celebrating the most everyday of miracles, a new life. This was not martyrdom or sacrifice, but simple, brutal murder. It even lacked the poetry to be described as tragedy. It was simply carnage.

We live in an age where we are exposed to information in previously unimaginable quantities: from books and magazines, from news, from advertising. Above all from the ability of friends and acquaintances to constantly present us with new facts, new ideas, and the nagging sense that someone, somewhere, is “doing life” better than we are. The average person today has to make constant decisions about what we know – and how that fits or not with what we thought we knew yesterday – in a way that would utterly confound our ancestors. In that context, it is understandable to use formulaic words and phrases which streamline our process of meaning-making.

But as the rabbi I listened to yesterday morning reminded me and anyone else who listened, words are fundamental: words have power. Creation in Jewish understanding was a speech act. As we remember the dead of Pittsburgh, we have an immense responsibility to do what those in power seem unwilling or unable to do – remember that our words bring the world into being. We are all witnesses to the consequences of doing so – or of not doing so. So, belatedly, Shabbat shalom.  

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2018: The Power of Words

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Oswiecim Jewish Cemetery. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.

 

I am often reminded of the midrash that says that all Jewish souls (neshamot) were present at Sinai. I remember it every Friday as my partner and I light candles for Shabbat: the words of the blessings over candles, wine and bread linking us not just to Jews all over the world but also through time.

Though I still need transliteration, if I am sufficiently centred I can feel the words coming not from my mouth but through me from a source that stretches back to Sinai. Liturgy as a “portable homeland” is a commonplace of Jewish Studies, but it is also a door through which the whispers of generations can be heard. My partner likes to poke gentle fun at my “authentic” Polish-accented pronunciation but for me, like Polish, the brachot come from a place just beyond conscious memory.

This Friday night also – thinking Jewishly – marks the beginning of Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a curious indicator of the symbolic tension between secular and religious understandings of the Holocaust. Mourning is prohibited on Shabbat – the shiva of eight days following a funeral is suspended for the twenty-five hours between candle-lighting and the resumption of “normal” time at Havdalah. To remember the Holocaust at such a moment, therefore, presents a challenge for observant Jews. How to commemorate slaughter at a moment when they are commanded to live most purely?

This year’s theme is particularly well-suited to reconciling the tension. Words are not (quite) actions, and can be uttered in any spirit. In thinking about the theme of HMD this year, I reflected on four things that they can be used for.

Firstly, and most obviously in a Holocaust context, they can be used to curse. Thomas Pegelow Kaplan has recently explored how language became an everyday vehicle for discrimination and hatred. Teaching about the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, I am often struck by how short they are: just a few hundred words to define and separate a people from work, from family, from relationships. Juden sind hier unerwünscht: Jews not wanted here. Signs with this short phrase demarcated new realities for German Jewry in the 1930s, realities which found ultimate expression in the ghettoes and camps of WW2. This was based on the slogan that was repeated in posters and signs, and repeated at rallies: Die Juden sind unser Unglück; The Jews are our misfortune.

This is connected to the second use of words: to lie. The measure of Nazi shame at what they did can be seen in the linguistic contortions and evasions that were employed. Euphemism became the only way in which what was happening could [not] be described. “Resettlement” meant deportation to murder. “Jewish residential district” signified a ghetto where the inhabitants lived from day to day on borrowed time and stolen hopes. The individual lives and stories consigned to the pits were reduced to “Figuren”: pieces, not people. The tension required to keep this linguistic distortion in place can be seen most clearly in Himmler’s October 1944 Posen speech to senior SS officers, when he referred to “the extermination of the Jews […] a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Himmler knew that his assertion of the ‘glory’ of the Holocaust would not survive the scrutiny: he could only be proud of his crimes if he kept them secret and far from challenge. Language can cover and conceal the facts, even from their authors.

Survivors have long struggled with the challenge posed by this debasement of language, trying to find truth and value in debased coinage. Primo Levi wrote of the realisation after being stripped, shaved, showered, tattooed and thrust into “the blue and icy snow of dawn, barefoot and naked” that “our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.” Charlotte Delbo, sent to Auschwitz for her work in the French Resistance, questioned whether one could even speak of “after”:

I’m not alive. People believe memories grow vague, are erased by time, since nothing endures against the passage of time. That’s the difference; time does not pass over me, over us. It doesn’t erase anything, doesn’t undo it. I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz but no one knows it.

For many – Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Jean Amery, possibly Levi himself – the sense that something essential of them had died in Auschwitz meant that they could not carry on. In Polish, in German, in French, in Italian, the reality of the Lager eluded description and in doing so meant life, interrupted by Auschwitz, could never really be resumed. Like the matzeva (tombstone) that heads this piece, life was broken and though some details of the life might be glimpsed, the words that might have animated them to live in our minds were lost. We can know she was Rivka, but we cannot know what she meant, to herself or others: though she died before the Holocaust, the deaths of her descendants most likely killed her a second time. Flesh become word, word become trace: the blank flashing of the cursor as we confront what we cannot now know.

For others, however, the struggle to tell the story was its own reason to carry on. The fierce insistence of Elie Wiesel that “A novel about Treblinka is either not a novel or not about Treblinka” did not stand in the way of writing or working and reworking his memoir Night from its Yiddish original to French, and thence from French to English. His wife Marion retranslated it in 2006, returning to the task he began in Paris in the 1940s, trying to “conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries”. But they wouldn’t match the words that took his little sister from him, on the ramp in Birkenau: men to the left, women to the right.

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment where I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.

Working with the Holocaust Educational Trust on their Lessons from Auschwitz project, we stand where the words were spoken and read Wiesel’s account. There is often a biting wind, and the students are tiring from the long day. And yet these words cut through: the students’ eyes lift from the ground out of their coats and scarves. Eyes stream from more than the wind and even above the wind you can hear the silence.

The sheer number of Holocaust testimonies is the best testament to the difficulty of putting into words both the experience itself and its meaning afterwards. Paul Steinberg, in his distinctively reflexive memoir Speak You Also tries to unpick his memories of Auschwitz from his depiction by Primo Levi as “Henri”, the quintessential survivor who “closed himself up, as if in armour [fighting] to live without distraction”. Whether or not he found truth he leaves uncertain: with the penultimate sentence he refers to “reflections and intermittent memories” which provide him with what he calls the alibi he needs. Whether it is truth, he is unsure, but it is a verdict; “Officially cleared from the docket […] A delivery, however long overdue, is still a deliverance.”

But this is far short of the final power of words: to heal and bless. It is rather the attenuation and separation of meaning from context imagined by Andre Schwarz-Bart in his final novel, The Morning Star, imagining how a race of immortals might try to understand the massacre, hearing its “drawn-out echo” twisted by distance from their source. “The star-dwellers would say, for instance, to mark the idea of an epitome, of a peculiar intensity: an Auschwitz of gentleness, a Treblinka of joy.” This carries through the idea of his first novel, The Last of the Just, describing how the Holocaust consumes the last of the Levy family, the final Lamed Vav: the last of the righteous men and women whose goodness justifies the purpose of mankind to God. Without the just, words lose their meaning; and without meaning the just lose their lives.

This loss of the meaning of words is a feature of modern life. Post-modernity, with its recognition that neither the tale nor the teller could be entirely trusted, allowed the questioning of established “truths” of relationships between genders, classes, and individuals, even if this has fallen far short of their dismantling. Many authors have commented on the way in which the Holocaust, as it threw into doubt the assumption of European progress, made that questioning and dismantling possible. If the systems that produced our societies produced the death camps, then how could we not question the systems?

But this assumed a world in which the connection between sign and signified was relatively stable. As we consume more and more information at progressively greater remove, we can be less and less sure of provenance, context and corroboration: the constituent parts of what might be termed truth.

In the 1980s, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard warned of the rise of simulacra: copies for which there was no original. Eight years before the internet, he warned that there was “more and more information, and less and less meaning” and that the confusion of exposure to information with participation in social life carried with it the possibility of a collapse of both. He worried that “meaning is lost and devoured faster than it can be reinjected”.

As Matthew D’Ancona has written, the discrediting of authorities or arbiters has collapsed into “unhealthy relativism, in which the epistemological chase is not only better than the catch – but all that matters.” We have become experts at spotting “bias” or privilege but unable in many cases to distinguish them from perspective or principle. In a world where nothing can be relied on, we have attached ourselves, limpet-like, to what “feels right” or can be argued over what can be proved. “Alternative facts” are preferred to inconvenient truths.

And there is no need for the bureaucracy of an Orwellian state along the lines of 1984. The Ministry of Truth can be built in computer programs and the corrections are seamless, almost impervious to checking. Robots compile stories from building blocks, replacing possibility with doubt, substituting meaning with syntax.

So how can we put that meaning back? The answer is, paradoxically, found in Auschwitz. Each Lessons from Auschwitz trip is accompanied by a rabbi and each trip ends, symbolically at least, with a ceremony at the end of the rail lines in Birkenau. Long since the night has drawn in and with temperatures falling, the group of two hundred people listens to poems and prayers. The rabbi says many things but the core of what he has to say is a single word, which he asks the group to repeat: Zakhor. Remember. Hold on to what you have seen, what you have heard, where you have gone. In the vastness of the Polish sky, the words barely echo, even on the stones. But the word comes out and goes up all the same.

Words travel in unpredictable directions. Two years ago, a postcard sent by my partner’s great-grandparents from Izbica, the last stop on their journey to Sobibor, was found in a German flea-market. The finder found my partner’s mother and the postcard has led to a trip next week to where her mother came from in 1939; from where her grandparents and great-uncle were deported in 1942. We will stand outside their former home and watch as an artist installs Stolpersteine – stumbling stones – in the pavement. Their names, their dates of birth, their deportations and their deaths will become part of the landscape: flesh become word, word become trace, trace become memory. And then, inscribed on the stone as well as in memory, perhaps there will be some kind of peace. Words speak of the possibility of going on; but only if we are present to the truth of what happened, to receive the sparks as they fly outward, so that we may bless them.