Friday, January 27, 2023

'You Will Certainly Dishonor It'

According to a resolution passed by the United Nations in 2005, today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel it’s observed as Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). In Poland, where the Germans built the Auschwitz concentration camp, the day is designated International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. On January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz where more than a million people had been murdered.


The Holocaust defies language and human understanding. Some still deny it ever happened (or endorse it). In Munich in 1973, I could find no one who would give me directions to Dachau. German speakers suddenly denied understanding English and walked away. Less than a year earlier, Palestinian terrorists had murdered eleven members of the Israeli Olympics team in Munich. Another American finally told me where I could wait for the bus that would take me to the camp.


On the bus were two American men, school teachers from Chicago who identified themselves as Jews. They were in a histrionically festive mood over their "transgressiveness." They had a Frisbee and announced to their fellow passengers they weren’t going to be sad at Dachau, and  intended to celebrate – what, I’m not certain. They liked the attention they were getting.


There were no guides at the camp, no formal tours. The sites of the former barracks were marked by gravel-filled rectangular outlines. I visited the crematorium and stared at the ovens. The teachers played with their Frisbee. I  remember thinking I didn’t know why I was there.


Too often, descriptions of life in the camps turn into well-intentioned kitsch. Better the method of Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (1961; rev. 1985– a scrupulous accounting of statistics, documenting what to the Germans was, after all, a bureaucratic business. We can be grateful for Primo Levi, Jean Améry, Paul Celan, Imre Kertész and at least one non-Jew, the Pole Tadeusz Borowski, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau. See his Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories (trans. Madeline G. Levine, Yale University Press, 2021).


Vasily Grossman did the impossible. As a war correspondent attached to the Red Army he wrote in 1944 one of the first journalistic accounts of a death camp, “The Hell of Treblinka” (included in The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, trans. Robert Chandler, 2010). Grossman’s masterpiece, one of the supreme achievements of twentieth-century fiction, is Life and Fate (trans. Robert Chandler, 1985). He takes the reader into a gas chamber. Sofya Osipovna Levinton is being transported by train to a Nazi death camp. She is a doctor without children of her own, and befriends a little boy on the train, David. At the camp, a German officer orders all doctors to step forward. Sofya Osipovna ignores the command and chooses to stay with David and the others, who are herded into a gas chamber:


“This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.


“'I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.


“That was her last thought.


“Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.”


The effect is devastating, especially when Grossman switches to the second-person plural and addresses his readers directly: Sofya Osipovna “felt pity for all of you.” Grossman writes not of the six million but of two, as Chekhov might have done. On Twitter on Thursday, Rabbi David Wolpe posted a pertinent twist on George Santayana:


“If you forget the past you might repeat it, but you will certainly dishonor it.”

[Not entirely unrelated: On January 27, 1940, on orders from Beria and Stalin, Isaac Babel was executed in Lubyanka Prison, Moscow.]

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