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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.