Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Ways to remember the Holocaust

It was an odd experience visiting the Auschwitz extermination camp.

My Jewish background made a trip inevitable, I suppose, in time. I’d always put it off, as I tend to be far too easily moved by this kind of thing. An extract from Schindler’s List, say, or perhaps the hopeless face of a young man or an old woman waiting for the next step in their fate, a mystery to them but all too well-known to us, can bring tears to my eyes.

But with my wife being sent several times to work in Kraków, the Polish town only an hour and a half from Auschwitz, and having joined her there for the second time, I felt it couldn’t be put off any longer. I had to go and see for myself.

Well, I’ve been. Despite my fears of being overwhelmed. And it moved me far less than I expected.

In the first place, it was all terribly familiar. I’ve seen too many photos, too many films. Even the sign with its great lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, ‘Work will set you free’, seemed familiar and, to tell the truth, rather smaller than I expected.

In addition, the place is now a museum and feels like one. The barrack blocks are cold, bitter, uninviting, but they’re sterile, as are the walkways between them. Get there after 10:00 am and you have to walk around with a guide, though I noticed some people who weren’t: we should have emulated them since our guide spoke uninterruptedly, barely drawing breath, leaving no time for the kind of silence real awe requires.

Most important of all, there are only buildings left. Naturally, I’m delighted there are no more inmates, but it was their presence and their treatment that gave the place its horror. Without them, it’s merely a collection of ugly barrack blocks. Only the barbed wire felt sinister, as it was obviously designed to keep in, whereas when we see that kind of fence these days, it’s usually intended to keep people out.

Barbed wire and barrack blocks at Auschwitz I
The sign warns about high-tension electricity –
that is, it warns people 
outside: we don't want them getting hurt
Even barbed wire, though, isn’t as eloquent as the human stories. That was brought home to me when I came across an enlarged extract from a photo of Jews walking towards the gas chamber. It showed three young boys walking side by side, one holding the hand of what looks like his younger brother. Now that was harrowing. Little boys. Like my sons once were. My sons would, indeed, have been in that same position had Hitler got his hands on them: a Jewish grandmother would have been enough to send them down that deadly walk too.

The boys, off to the gas chamber
People are what give the Auschwitz story its searing quality, not physical structures. That’s why I found the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague far more moving. It has been plastered and whitewashed from floor to ceiling. On its walls, have been painted thousands of names in stark red and dates of birth and death in grim black. Old people, young people, children. An entire community, the 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jews with their hopes and failures, dreams and achievements, wiped out. To top it all, there are the paintings by Jewish children made in Theresienstadt concentration camp under the direction of Bauhaus-trained Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was herself killed in Auschwitz.

Names and dates of death of an entire murdered community
Those were sights that brought tears to my eyes. I tried to guess the stories of victim after victim. Born in 1935, murdered in 1942. Who does that? And why?

Back in Kraków, in the old Jewish quarter, we visited the Kupa synagogue, one of four that are once more open for worship. At the Jewish community centre – motto ‘Building a Jewish future in Kraków’ – we were told there were just 120 practising Jews in a city which once held more than 60,000. In all, 500 residents who recognise their Jewish roots, whether they choose to worship or not, have registered with the Kraków Community.

The Kupa Synagogue
An active centre of Jewish worship again
I feel no inclination to practice Judaism myself. If others wish to, or indeed to be active Muslims, Catholics, Protestants or members of any other faith, that seems to be their choice and none of my concern.

On the other hand, when I see Jews begin to organise again in a city from which their predecessors had been so thoroughly eradicated, that feels like more than the exercise of a right to worship. It doesn’t matter that the beginnings are so small. It’s still the living reasserting their claims over their would-be murderers.

I find that a far more moving testimonial than Auschwitz.


Mark said...

Hello :-)
Amongst posted comments, I have spotted two interesting statements regarding Judaism:
"My mother being Jewish makes me, naturally, Jewish. (...) It’s a law nearly as inescapable as the law of gravity."
"I feel no inclination to practice Judaism myself. If others wish to, or indeed to be active Muslims, Catholics, Protestants or members of any other faith, that seems to be their choice and none of my concern."

As you point out: Judaism is not a choice, but an organic heritage from mother to child, blood bonded, something like Rhesus factor.
Also emphasized: the freedom in choosing one's religion, a choice which is beyond your concern as not adept of any particular deliberate credo. (agnostic ?)
You also implicitly define religion, a difficult notion, as… "faith".
So broadly speaking, faith could be seen as the directional view of a core objective seated in the mind, be it dogma, philosophy, ideal or nothing, recognized by others as "his" religion. In other words, to keep it simple, you have faith in what you think and those who think alike, and one may conclude to that as a religion. Something like going to the idea supermarket and free to pick any mental construction off the shelf.

What you say however is very different. Judaism is not a religion, it is much more.

It's in the blood, you are born with it, organically compounded, and nothing will alter this reality.
Of the multitude of Judaic concepts, be they trivial or not, one remains constant: The unaltered thread of successive generations, deeply rooted in the mitochondrial DNA and perfectly documented in the Bible, since Noah's alliance with God. Judaism seems and feels like a religion, not in the intellectual ephemeral software representation of the word, but deep in the wired and unaltered hardware blueprint of the body.
Judaism is in the flesh and consequently, beyond the aspect of palabras and rituals, a fact as inescapable as the law of gravity.
Judaism has throughout the generations maintained a golden thread with its origins, whatever the circumstances; I think it a marvelous achievement of faith and something you should be part and proud of.
It's your choice, whatever.
Keep the blog going David, it's very good, rich in ideas, an opening to debate, and on the right track!

David Beeson said...

Many thanks for a long and insightful comment.

You put your finger on the fundamental question in the debate about Judaism: is it a race (or perhaps, to use a less loaded word, a people) or is it a religion? I think it's most unlikely to be anchored in DNA – certainly there's no evidence of any specifically Jewish DNA. I've also met several converts to Judaism, and I'm not prepared to believe that their DNA was affected by what was, after all, very much a choice. I believe that the inheritance aspect of Judaism was in reality part of the impact of persecution: Jews were positively banned, or at least discouraged, from proselytising at a certain point in their career in Europe, and making the faith a matter of inheritance was a way of rationalising the restrictions on conversion.

The net effect is that, in my view, Judaism is a matter of belief. Ultimately, that makes it a matter of choice too, though I think the impact of upbringing is so huge – whatever the religion – that to choose another makes the choice far from free.

Best wishes to you.