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.
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