Languages of the Holocaust



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Exodus 23:9, ““No sojourner shall you oppress, for you know the sojourner’s heart, since you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” Photo and montage, Jaime Ashworth, 2021.

I’ve spent the last two days at a conference organised by the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), exploring the challenges of generational relationships to the events of the Nazi era. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years working with Generation2Generation, which trains speakers from the  second and third generations to present their family stories, and the experience has been extremely thought-provoking. I was hoping for a space in which I would be able to think three-dimensionally about the work I do with G2g and how that relates to the broader scope of Holocaust Studies and especially Holocaust Education. In an intriguing hybrid format (Day 1 online and Day 2 both online and in person at Chelsea Football Club), it did not disappoint.

Firstly, it made clear why it is so important to work with subsequent generations. AJR Chief Executive Michael Newman opened Day 2 by noting that the organisation has recently reached the point where the numbers of “first generation” members is matched by second- and third-generations. The conference was a part of a shift in orientation to ensure that the organisation remained relevant to all of its membership. 

A number of organisations are either making that shift or have been established to meet that need. G2g is joined by the Manchester-based Northern Holocaust Education Group (NHEG) and the Scottish organisation Gathering the Voices. The ‘45 Aid Society, established around the postwar child refugees known as ‘The Boys’ has also developed its generational offering with a fascinating website describing these remarkable life stories: as their video emphasised, in many cases produced by their descendants. The presentations by representatives made clear how busy all these bodies are. The post-survivor era is not here yet – though there is broad acceptance that it is nearing – but when it comes they can rest assured that their descendants (and allies) will carry their legacy forward bravely.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg addresses the conference. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2021.

What that will look like, however, is very much in flux – and should remain so. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg spoke movingly of how he realised that his upbringing was an unusual one: “I thought I grew up in North London. I didn’t: I grew up in a German-Jewish enclave in North London.” He spoke of his wife’s hilarity when they first met that he couldn’t name the Beatles, so used was he to the sophisticated, cultured milieu of the family dinner table. But he underlined that this led him to look outward, remembering the Biblical admonition “No sojourner shall you oppress, for you know the sojourner’s heart, since you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23: 9) In a more mundane, but possibly even more powerful moment, Hannah Goldstone of NHEG spoke of taking her daughter shopping to buy sanitary supplies for refugees. Why are we doing this, her daughter asked? “Because we know refugees. Because we’re from refugees” was the answer.

Listening to many different stories of exile and rescue over the two days, I was struck by the way that the legacy is part of British society in unpredictable ways. Many of the Kindertransport passengers, like the mother and uncle of G2g speaker Tim Locke, did not identify as Jews – in fact his mother rejected that label as an imposition of the Nuremberg Laws. The legacy of the Holocaust thus stretches well beyond what is sometimes called “the Jewish world”: to the leafiest parts of the Home Counties, even. It is therefore vital to look to the next challenge, the relationship of the past to our present and future. In conversation with Stephen Smith, Elisha Wiesel noted that his father, Elie Wiesel, viewed the genocide in Rwanda as equal in importance and uniqueness to the Holocaust – or any other genocide. 

Uniqueness is a problematic word in the context of Holocaust Studies. It implies a “preferential” view of the Holocaust that seems to jockey for a spotlight. But there is no necessary contradiction: the Holocaust had its unique elements – its singularity – just as Rwanda did (just as Yugoslavia did, just as…, just as…) but it is in its belonging to a class of events – genocides – which makes it of universal relevance. To look outside and meet the eyes of other groups recovering from (or experiencing) atrocity is a route to healing, and also a way to ensure the continuing relevance of this history to the world. 

Though for many the past will never be exactly history, but who they are. The American storyteller Lisa Lipkin took listeners on an amazing inner journey through her family’s Holocaust legacy. There were a lot of good jokes, but my abiding impression was of the sadness in her eyes, and the catch in her voice as she described encountering her aunt’s blue kerchief from Auschwitz in a USHMM warehouse. I wondered if, in the many sessions she has run, that gaze has been truly held and returned. It’s a look I see at the back of the eyes of many of the second-generation, and why (I suspect) so many of them are driven to talk, and teach, and try to express that pain that is both theirs and not theirs. The search is for language above all: this may be “postmemory”, but it is not post-pain. And pain, as Jean Amery famously wrote, cannot be communicated, only inflicted.

The issue of language dominated a discussion between Bea Lewkowicz of the AJR’s Refugee Voices project and two second-generation. All the voices (some recorded) noted the way that the language of their families was a crucial marker.  The daughter of Valerie Klimt, in a recorded interview, noted that German constituted a “secret code” for the family – which prompted a ripple of knowing giggles from the audience. But equally Ed Skrein, a Game of Thrones actor, was shown saying that the Holocaust was always present in his family (his grandparents came from Vienna), but that “They would never speak of it in personal terms.” I reflected that perhaps the belief that the Holocaust is beyond representation – or Unspeakable, as an Imperial War Museum exhibition once described it – comes partly from the strained silence in many families: unable to speak of it, but unable as a result to speak of little else. 

A session with the sociologist and journalist Anne Karpf crystallised these thoughts. She described the challenges of writing and revisiting her memoir The War After, she spoke of how she resisted the task of writing initially: “Why do I have to do it?” she says she sobbed to her partner. And then she questioned the way writing the book “sort of froze me…into being the child of Holocaust survivors.” But then she spoke of how the idea of intersectionality helped her see the past as one component of a kaleidoscopic range of identities. One definition, perhaps, but not necessarily defining.

Dr Anne Karpf speaks to the conference: “I want to retain the right to contest my previous narrative.” Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2021.

But it was her thoughts on Holocaust memory that really struck home. She raised the idea (following Dominick LaCapra) of “archival fetishism” and the sacralisation of the Holocaust – even her unease at the “second-generation” label. She suggested that there needs to be a clearer distinction between the remembered self and the remembering self, a sharper choice between the overwhelming of memory and the rootlessness of forgetting. “I want,” she said proudly but also slightly plaintively, “to retain the right to contest my previous narrative.”

At this, I remembered the value of in-person conferences: the chance to sit quietly, and listen, and think among the like-minded and curious. How do we balance the demands of remembering for the future while forgetting for the present? The answer, I suggest, lies in language. I often return to the concept of mythology as framed by Roland Barthes (the language in which we speak of other things) as a central part of my academic life and approach. What if we saw “The Holocaust” as a language? As anyone who has learned a language knows, vocabulary and grammar act to both enable and circumscribe expression, and to transmit knowledge and values – the ingredients of what might be termed “usable” remembering. And as the people around me demonstrated, languages can be moved between: we do not always have to “speak Holocaust”, any more than we have to speak French, or German, or Italian, or Polish, however useful or integral to our selves they may be at moments. We always have a choice to rewrite – or re-speak – ourselves. 

The poet Michael Rosen spoke in the morning to AJR’s Alex Maws about his journey to find and attempt to understand his family’s past – to fill in the strange gap where his great-uncles in particular should have been. As someone whose early literacy was heavily influenced by his poems, it was a treat just to be in the room: the chance to have books signed was not one I was going to miss. Looking through his volume of poems about migration, On the Move, I was struck by the importance of language: the Yiddish words his parents use are a recurring theme. “Mum can speak two languages/and sometimes mixes them up” begins one poem. And in the introduction, he notes the power of poetry – the music of language – as “a way of thinking [which gives me a space to talk about things that are personal to me, but it also lets me leave things hanging in the air… To ask questions without giving too-neat answers.” What better mode of remembrance could there be? 

Links to the various organisations mentioned are included in the text: any and all them are appreciative of support. The two-line quotation in the final paragraph is from the poem “Two Languages” in Michael Rosen, On the Move: Poems about Migration (Walker Books, 2020. RRP £9.99). The lines from Exodus are from Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).

An Argument that Must Not Abate



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Anti-lockdown sticker, Camden, 2021. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The debate over Dirk Moses’s German Catechism has led to a vigorous and interesting debate online in the last few weeks. The New Fascism Syllabus website has hosted a range of perspectives and responses, and scholars such as Neil Gregor have posted responses on their own blog sites. Doubtless someone, somewhere, is securing a book contract for the edited volume. And of course Twitter has lent itself to pithy and witty interventions, whether or not anyone was listening.

In which spirit, this is, as billed, the intervention in the German Catechism debate for which nobody has been waiting – but that in itself perhaps undermines the argument that the “gatekeepers” which Moses talks about are as effective as he suggests. The problem with which all of the world grapples, after all, is that the right to free speech creates neither a duty to publish nor an obligation to listen. Though as Jennifer Evans and Tiffany Florvil have pointed out, the debate has been conducted largely between and among white men of a certain age and socioeconomic status, ignoring the work of women and people of colour (and often both) in establishing, maintaining and hosting the debates themselves, while also employing arguments that have been currency outside that bubble for some time. The work of Anna Hajkova and Zoe Waxman, for example, in addressing challenging areas of research to do with sexual identities and sexual violence in the Holocaust, illustrates the difficulty of overcoming (in Waxman’s words) “opposition to feminist scholarship and thus to the very study of gender and the Holocaust itself rather than on any meaningful dialogue with the content of the research.” One might perhaps suggest that the debate at least began as a scrap among the gatekeepers themselves rather than those trying to get in.

(Disclaimer: I am hardly a break from the norm in several of the personal respects listed above, though as an independent scholar I do not have the status of many interlocutors. I will however, rigorously and professionally conduct meaningful Holocaust Education for your synagogue, community centre, youth movement, wedding or bar mitzvah.)

My own position is fairly straightforward. Moses is right to call out and protest unreflexive and inauthentic commemoration and research which does not take seriously the continuities and intersectionalities in the Holocaust. The fact that the Holocaust constituted the implementation of colonial warfare and ethnic cleansing against Europeans is an important and vital part of understanding the events. David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen (in The Kaiser’s Holocaust) used the figure of Heinrich Goering (father of the more famous Hermann) to illustrate this, noting that “While the father, whose prospective victims were black Africans, fits our view of a colonialist, the son does not. Yet the Nazis’ war in the East was one of imperial expansion, settler colonialism and racial genocide.”

Hitler himself in Mein Kampf set his purpose as “[drawing] a line under the foreign policy of pre-war Germany” and “putting a stop to the colonial and trade policy of the pre-war period and passing over to the territorial policy of the future” – by which he meant “the East”. What has been missing is the voices and likeness of the victims from which Hitler turned away. David Olusoga further illustrated – through the figure of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – in The World’s War (2014) how the First World War in Africa “far from being a meaningless side show in Europe’s war […] became the last phase of the Scramble for Africa.”

Nonetheless, Michael Berkowitz, in his introductions to the recently republished pamphlets by Alfred Wiener, The Fatherland and the Jews, passes over reference to “the Educational Service of the Lettow-Vorbeck Brigade”, noting that they “expressly advocated pogroms and public hangings of Jews” to buttress his claim that Wiener was “completely reasonable in leaving Hitler out of the picture”. Lettow-Vorbeck was (as Olusoga puts it) a “colonial specialist” having participated in the suppression of the ‘Boxer’ rebellion in China and the genocide of the Nama in South West Africa. The existence of a brigade named after him tells us much about the role of colonial mentalities in 1920s ex-soldier communities, yet here it is barely a footnote. The parallel debate about whether the recent “apology” for genocide in Namibia is sufficient or even genuine has perhaps been rather drowned out by the disputes about attitudes to memorialising the Holocaust.

At the same time, the fact that this debate is even taking place represents progress. A characteristically trenchant and engaging intervention from Neil Gregor is also right to remind readers that progress has been made, a point reinforced by Bill Niven. Historical understanding, by its nature, has to proceed at its own pace. There was, after all, a time in which Raul Hilberg was marginalised for pursuing research into the “machinery of destruction” which was set up to annihilate European Jewry. That European scholars have preferred to research topics in which they could retain some clear moral standing is understandable, though the work of scholars to recover and link this to the repression of colonial peoples and patriarchal attitudes to the history of gender and sexual identity should of course be encouraged. There is in some quarters possibly a desire to keep the debate on territory which the interlocutors are comfortable – though both Gregor and Niven have clear track records in both conducting and encouraging research “against the grain”.

The core problem here is the acceptance that time moves in one direction and that historical understanding is highly contingent. The literary scholar Lawrence Langer has recently published a collection of articles under the title The Afterdeath of the Holocaust. As well as commenting on core texts in Holocaust Studies, the articles also explore Langer’s own engagement with the subject of the Holocaust since the 1950s. He returns frequently – one might say almost obsessively – to his desire to avoid “redemptive” memory of the Holocaust. He insists that the Holocaust must be “a landscape of the imagination we never inhabited where solace perished along with the victims whose remnants lie scattered beneath its surface” and reiterates his opposition to “misguided” attempts “to find ways of coping with such desolation by striving to wrest some minimal meaning from the atrocity of mass murder.”

I am set to review Langer in more detail elsewhere, and I will use that space to detail the contradictions he entangles himself in there. But what comes through his writing is twofold: firstly, a profound sense of the lasting shock he experienced in his first encounters with the Holocaust; and secondly his clear frustration that the Holocaust has become normalised, in some important regards through his own work. The influence of his work on Holocaust testimony has been profound, as described by Noah Shenker in Reframing Holocaust Testimony (2015). Shenker notes that the Fortunoff Archive (informed in large part by Langer) has an “aversion to redemptive closure in testimonies” which means it can “miss those moments when a witness actually expresses some semblance of redemption.” It feels a lot like Langer is opposed to any kind of recovery or coping. Which is a heavy burden to live with, if true, for both survivors and subsequent generations.

Art Spiegelman, MAUS.

In Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, “Artie” asks his survivor therapist to explain how Auschwitz was. “BOO!” he replies “It felt a little like that. But ALWAYS.” For the individual encountering the Holocaust for the first time, it is still a lot like that, but it is also part of a “Holocaust metanarrative”. As Donald Bloxham and Tony Kushner put it, “the bundle of ideas and preconceptions handed down under the label ‘Holocaust’ that shapes the contours and parameters of our understanding of the subject.” There is no going back – and as Robert Jan van Pelt realised when starting his expert report in defence of Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, that is a good thing. Deniers have to work against the Holocaust as historical and social fact: nobody really comes to it with an open mind in the sense of doubting it happened. As can be seen from the COVID conspiracy theory sticker which illustrates this post, the premise of the Holocaust has been very widely accepted. But this must not be allowed to solidify completely into slogans and parrot-like repetitions of formulaic ideas. As Moses reminds us, there is a duty on us to ensure that the contours and parameters of the subject mentioned by Bloxham and Kushner are debated, expanded and made more complex by the arrival of new and challenging research, and in a complex and diverse social milieu.

Ultimately, however, the tendency will always be to simplicity. Jay Winter and Antoine Prost have described how in the aftermath of World War 1, there was a conviction that the experience of combat could not be communicated, and could only be understood by those who were there. Yet a century later, the memory of the conflict is conducted largely through symbols which are easily recognised and understood: the poppy, some key photographs, pieces of poetry and other writing. If we tried to remember every crime committed by Europe in the modern age, we would have no space for any other activity, so we create ways of accessing the appropriate feeling when it is appropriate. Following Barthes, events become languages in which we speak of other things as well as themselves. Yet, as the work of David Olusoga, Santanu Das and many others illustrates, these moments of accessing the symbols of memory can also be occasions on which fresh thinking and energy can invest them with new meaning. In 2014-15 I was teaching an A-level class about India in the First World War and was able to use Olusoga and Das to talk about the conflict in a way which empowered students as agents of memory and change. The challenge of doing so for the Holocaust is the next stage: arguments such as these will recur, cynics may wonder (as Ian Kershaw noted of the 1980s Historikerstreit) whether they generate more heat than light. But as long as we strive to include as many voices as we can, and incorporate as many conflicting and challenging histories as possible, they will not abate – thank goodness.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: One Day


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The Book of Lamentations inscribed on the Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park. Photo: Jaime Ashworth

How we connect the history and meaning of the Holocaust to other events and processes is in many ways the defining argument in the field today. Whether in academic circles – witness the German Catechism debate last year – or in the hurly-burly of Twitter, how far the Holocaust can act as a comparison or analogue to other things is constantly under review. In the latter environment, amid a stream of careless allusion and under-considered rhetoric, the devaluation of Holocaust imagery and symbols by those opposed to vaccinations and lockdowns has led many people to the adamantine belief that the only thing to which the Holocaust can be compared to is itself. Others meanwhile insist that the Holocaust is losing relevance or significance and should be spoken of in relation to other things: for example, to the crimes committed by colonial empires.

When working with students on dissertation projects, I often compare the process of research to selecting a lens in photography. Do I wish to look at the Holocaust in the fine grain of detail, requiring a narrow and intense focus? Or do I wish to situate the Holocaust in the context of other genocides and abuses of human rights, requiring a wide-angle lens? The problem of course being that either course has advantages and disadvantages. We might speak of a kind of uncertainty principle, in which the specific quality of the Holocaust appears most clearly when it occludes the broader significance, and vice versa: some of the texture of the Holocaust’s singularity is smoothed out by distance when thinking about how it relates to other things.

Keeping these things in balance is a constant challenge, and a worthy kind of memorial in itself. An event as complex and challenging should not be reduced to bromides or platitudes. Passionate argument and discussion about the best and most fitting way to remember this event indicates that it is still relevant. The challenge of relating it to the terrible colonial legacies of European civilisation in a way that preserves the significance of both. The challenge of recognising how ways of thinking about gender and sexuality were part of the poisonous brew of festering assumptions that boiled over in 1930s Germany. The challenge of recognising that attitudes to Roma and Travellers have barely evolved since the 1930s. Above all, perhaps, the challenge of seeing that the Holocaust was only possible because the countries of Europe all, to varying degrees, facilitated, encouraged, or even just tolerated the persecution of Jews because of an underlying antisemitism that seems less dormant with each passing day. The attack on Congregation Beth El in Colleyville, Texas, remember, was carried out by a man from Britain. Just last night, two Jewish men in Stamford Hill were attacked, out of the blue. The Community Security Trust recorded more antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2021 than in any comparable period since 2013.

From CST “Antisemitic Incidents, January-June 2021”

Wiseacres on social media might suggest that it’s a little churlish of me to raise this kind of argument on Holocaust Memorial Day. They might disingenuously imply that Holocaust Memorial Day places the genocide of Jews on a pedestal, drawing the gaze from present-day situations that they see as equivalent. Of course, they would have to ignore the way in which from its inception HMD has sought to provide knowledge and understanding of subsequent genocides. Across the country, survivors from Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur and many other places share their stories and experiences with those who will listen. There are events tonight with representatives of the Uyghur, who are being persecuted in terrible ways in China.

And the survivors of the Holocaust know that their lesson is general, not particular. I had the privilege today to facilitate (on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust) the testimony of Freddy Berdach, who escaped Austria in 1938 with his parents. He spoke of how the atmosphere was filled with fear after the Anschluss as crowds of jeering, laughing, spitting Viennese dragged men and women onto the streets. He described how, aged just eight, he became expert in the intricacies of immigration to particular countries – though he still believed that they were safe the moment they stepped on a train to Switzerland, an impression corrected when a fellow passenger revealed his party badge and insisted on strip-searching him. Yet he ended on a note of hope, with an appeal to the general, not the particular. “The Holocaust,” he said, “must become a cultural code for education towards human rights and democracy, for tolerance, and opposition to racism.” It was decided in 2000 to call the day Holocaust Memorial Day over the objections of survivors, who were concerned that they might be accused of demanding special consideration: organsisers argued that the popular recognition of the Holocaust as a paradigmatic genocide would ensure that audiences were given an accessible cognitive framework for learning about other events, in different places and at different times. For survivors, it is always a balance between telling their story – as Lamentations puts it, “[to] weep streams of tears […] because of the destruction of my people” and the knowledge that there is nothing to be done about the past, only the future. As Primo Levi said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the essence of what we have to say.”

The theme for HMD 2022, “One Day” is a challenging one in this regard, since it seems to draw the gaze to the particular. For the Holocaust was so much more than one day. Taking place across Europe and North Africa and over a period of twelve years, it encompassed days and moments beyond counting. The crux of the problem is that no “One Day” was quite like another, even for those who shared it. For some it was a day of survival, for others it was the end. To return to the metaphor of the camera, however; by thinking about one person on one day we can bring the meaning of the destruction into focus more clearly. For me, it will always be the faces of Israel and Zelig Jacob, photographed on their arrival in Birkenau, which will encapsulate the tragedy more sharply than any other. That one day was their last day – this photograph the only known image of them.

Israel and Zelig Jacob, on the ramp in Birkenau, May 1944. USHMM #77218

The real danger of memorial days is that they do all the work. Jacob Rees-Mogg today told the Commons that there would be no statement today on the report into Downing Street parties during lockdown since the government wanted to “devote the whole time to debating Holocaust Memorial Day.” I am sure I speak for many others when I say that while the memory of the Holocaust is something MPs should be concerned with, it should not be used as a way of blocking MPs from doing their jobs by holding the government to account. To use the memory of the Holocaust as a filibuster cheapens the democracy Freddy Berdach prizes so highly, as well as the experiences of those who survived.

This is because Holocaust Memorial Day is not – or should not be – a moment for navel-gazing. The Year 10 students listening to Freddy Berdach asked how they and others can continue to remember the Holocaust. As I explained to them, I chose not to ask Freddy this question. Not because I don’t think he would have an answer – I’m sure his remarkable mind and soul would have something to say – but because I don’t think the question of what the Holocaust will mean is really his problem any more – it’s ours. The students spent the last half hour before the end of the day writing to Freddy about how they are going to take what they have heard forward. For it is not today that is most important, nor yesterday, but tomorrow. That is the one day that really counts. For joy cometh in the morning, if only we are there to see it.

Where were you when…?


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A plane flies over Tate Modern, Bankside, London. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, June 2020.

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a significant milestone, in the paradoxical way that the ordinary turning of the calendar somehow is both mundane and mysterious. Many of us will be asking “Where were you when…?” this week and next week, in an effort to locate ourselves and each other in relation to the event itself and the “normal” world that we left behind without knowing it on the night of 10 September, 2001. It is an attempt to find the rhythm of life without the assumption that such things could happen.

Telling the stories of ruptures is problematic. As Alan Mintz has written, “a destructive event becomes a catastrophe when it convulses or vitiates shared assumption”, so we can no longer trust either the tale or the teller. The tale is not yet formed, and the teller does not yet know what to say. We lose what Barthes called our mythology – the language in which we speak – just as another is being tragically born. I remember hearing the sentence “A plane has hit the World Trade Centre” that afternoon (I was living in Krakow at the time) and thought: how terrible, what an awful accident. In the days before smartphones, it was not until I returned home to find the footage on television that I understood. Like many others, I had thought it was an accident: the tram home in the coolness of a Polish autumn had been quiet: the world seemed on its rails.

As the reality sank in, however, the trauma started to complicate things further. We often say “I was traumatised” or even “I am traumatised” but neither construction does it justice – it is truer to say “I am being traumatised” but there is never time to form that thought. The moment of impact is, by definition, not described, even when it is replayed endlessly, over and over again, making the viewer beg for the pause button or, better yet, rewind. “It’s like something from a movie” was something I heard a lot in the following days and weeks.

The interrupted quality of the most valuable kinds of witnessing means that even in investigating, there is trauma, as we know the witness may have said more, thought more: but we cannot know. Instead the screen crashes to black, the tape clicks off, the diary ends. First-person witnessing always promises an ending which, if not happy, at least holds some promise of continuity. We know, picking up a published memoir, that the witness survives. This is what makes films like The Pianist watchable – we know, though the artefact’s very existence, that the story did not end on the last page – it is equally why the most shocking part of the diary of Anne Frank is the insertion of the editors: “ANNE’S DIARY ENDS HERE”. The tragedy is that she could not finish her story, a symbol for many others whose stories had barely started.

Alongside this, the witnesses have to begin incorporating the previously impossible into their awareness, redrawing the frontiers of possibility and probability. Primo Levi, in a quote I often refer to, described how the liberators of Auschwitz struggled to recognise what had happened as something that could happen, that belonged in “the world of things that exist”. In trauma, we are confronted with things that just moments earlier were unthinkable, precisely when our minds lose the ability to do more than record because the routines and operating assumptions of our world are upside-down. We see people throwing themselves from a burning building and numbly watch, trying to make sense of what will not make sense. Things of which, to be honest, there is no sense to make. It is happening, live and on-camera, and we have no choice but to sit on the sofa, strapped into history as it carries us who knows where. And yet our understanding may far outstrip those on the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched the fall of Kabul, completing an arc which began its upward drive on that day twenty years ago. And the experience of that day allowed us to see terrible things more clearly: Afghans falling from their desperate handholds on a departing cargo plane, their twisting and flailing bodies a contrast to the almost balletic grace of the jumpers from the towers.

The photo of “The Falling Man” captures the duality of all traumatic testimony: that it describes both what happened, and what it is like to have experienced it. For the only experience that we can access, come even close to, is that of the onlookers whose only decision is what to allow into the lens of history, helpless as the thought hundreds of metres above turns into action that can only be witnessed, never truly understood.

As the event unfolds, the shift in metalanguages accelerates. Comparisons and analogies are sought, however hackneyed, however inadequate, to convey something of the unthinkable in terms that have already been thought, relating it back to their own lives and preoccupations. A few weeks later, my MA adviser commented on a draft of my dissertation, saying “You know, this is the end for a certain conception of Auschwitz.”

But for most, the early period is a time of confusion. As Muska Dastageer, a university lecturer in Kabul, tweeted on 19 August: “You feel like a speck of dust in some uncontrollable convulsion of history. It is not true, of course. There was a causal chain, decisions, failures. But that is how you feel. And from this shaking ground, it is hard to speak.” One strategy is to take pieces from the wreckage, hoping the specks of dust resolve themselves into a whole that can be understood. But that wholeness comes from without the storm, as we see what the others saw.

Slowly, however, dust does settle, creating the first symbols out of what comes to hand, as people try to position themselves and sift their memories as rescue workers sift ashes. Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel MAUS, found himself both the child of survivors (of the Holocaust) and the parent of a survivor (his daughter’s school, within Ground Zero, became a triage centre). Commissioned to design a cover for the New Yorker magazine, he later described himself as “reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide” – realising that the “indescribable” smell of burning flesh his father had described in Auschwitz was now a sense memory for him too. Otherwise, the image of “the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporised” was the essential image as he tried to “sort out the fragments of what I’d experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw.” His eventual design was black, the silhouettes of the towers picked out in a deeper ebony, “in the shadow of no towers.” The legacy of trauma is ongoing, and sometimes all the more indelible for being invisible.

Symbols are created with dizzying speed, to try and provide an ending, or at least a way station to recovery, triage for the mind. I remember the way the twisted metal silhouette whose disintegration so transfixed Spiegelman was suddenly everywhere: on television, in newspapers, on the covers of magazines. A shorthand of ruin, a stage-set for a president to proclaim the invincibility of the American spirit as it smouldered, it was woven into the fabric of everyday life, as hard to remove as the stench of smoke from clothes. The way the essence of the image was distilled from photograph to graphic reminded me of the way the terror and complexity of Auschwitz is reduced to the symbol of the Birkenau gate and rail tracks: simplifying and smoothing the roughness of the real into the manageable symbol.

But symbols allow healing, of a kind. The Polish poet Andrzej Bursa of how “Inside Auschwitz’s barren rib-cage/ Through which the setting sun flowed/ Like blood/We journalists wandered around looking/ into the black holes of crematoria”. The ruins can be viewed, studied, understood – even if this can be “Blasphemously objective”, it presupposes that there was life afterward, even if only of a kind. The “ribs” of the towers are now museum pieces.

The challenge of the next catastrophes will be that they will not come roaring out of a cloudless sky, raining death with vicious suddenness. It will not be, as Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but something which we will have to make an effort to hear. News will come slowly, confusingly, in scattered reports of disease, in sudden silences from remote settlements, in the repetition of “once-in-a-generation” events. It is announcing itself now, in a microscopic virus that brings nations to their knees, in sea levels that only reach their deadly new point of advance for a few moments of a turning tide, in air that is imperceptibly less easy to breathe, even in the increasing intensity with which fools insist it is not happening, that all is well, that the sky is not falling.

But if we do not do something, the question the children will ask will not be “Where were you when…? but “Why did you not…?” And we will have no answer, because the task of making sense of now was often hard enough, and the future is unknown. But in moments of silence, as we measure the distance from the certain tragedies of the past, we can perhaps stop and ask what has changed, what is changing, what could change before the next anniversary arrives, unbidden, unexpected and yet completely anticipated. Listen carefully for the storm beginning: all we can do is wait for loud noises, hollowly consoled that if we can hear them, we have escaped the first stage, at least for now.

For Julian Bessa, an accidental survivor, and Dr Syed Tabatabai, who works to save the world from both Covid and itself, and narrates its complications in stunning prose poems. Eyewitness accounts of 9/11 are taken from The Only Plane in The Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. The lines from ‘Auschwitz – Excursion’ by Andrzej Bursa come from Killing Auntie & other work, translated by Wiesiek Powaga.

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

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. 


London, March 2020

No Exit…


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.