Archive for January, 2017
Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust. But not just The Holocaust. It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.
If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France. Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpretrators and bystanders. We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films. There is thus a vast archive of material on which we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.
If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘How can life go on?’.
These days we have a better understanding of how, long after a traumatic event is apparently concluded, it is present and ongoing in the person who suffered it. It’s become a cliché – the offer of a help line, the parachuting in of counselling services after a ‘major incident’. That doesn’t mean that the help is provided when and where it’s most needed, or that it is always effective.
The late Jill Saward, talking about how she was able to rebuild her life after rape, said that you have to ‘bury it dead’. But that in order to do so you have to talk it out, for as long as it takes. If you don’t, then it may be buried, but not buried dead.
Many of those returning from the liberated camps found that their accounts were not believed, or not listened to. Anne Sebba’s fascinating book, Les Parisiennes, has some shocking accounts of these reactions.
Ravensbruck returnee, Michele Agniel, recounted how since she could barely stand, she was given a permit to jump the queues for rationed food.
“But when I did, a man complained, so I said I had just come back from a concentration camp. He said, ‘Mais quand même, they know how to queue in concentration camps, don’t they?’”
Denise Dufournier was regularly told that ‘they had had a jolly tough time in [Paris]’ when she tried to speak about her experiences. Some found that family members were shocked, not by the brutality of the camps but by the fact that survivors had had to steal in order to stay alive, or that they were mainly concerned to know if their daughters had been raped, or were still marriageable.
Perhaps we should not be too quick to condemn those who failed to recognise the sufferings – past and continuing – of the deportees. After all, anyone who has been bereaved or suffered a purely personal trauma will find that some of those who they counted as friends are too paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing to say anything at all. And this was horror on a scale that few could easily imagine – the evidence was there, had been for years, but people baulked at believing it. They still do.
At the gare de l’Est in April and May 1945, many of the survivors arrived home. There were plenty of people to greet them, with flowers. But the gesture suddenly seemed inappropriate, even ridiculous.
The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers. (Levy & Tilly, p. 229)
At the Hotel Lutétia, families waiting and hoping posted photographs and personal details, and deportees too gathered, hoping to find that someone was waiting for them. The photographs bore little resemblance to the people who returned, and some failed to recognise the people whose return they had awaited for so long. For many of the Jewish survivors, no one was waiting because no one was left.
There was a gulf between the survivors of the genocide and those who, with whatever privations, had escaped arrest, across which few even attempted to reach. By 1947, publishers no longer accepted manuscripts from the deportees, many of whom had been advised quite explicitly to desist from attempting to tell their stories. Not all tried, of course, some took refuge in silence for years, or decades, or for ever.
But those who spoke were not heard.
There were people who understood, people who had been there too. And so some of the deportees found solace in each other, and not only that but practical support with the painful process of resuming a life that could not simply be picked up again, as if it had just briefly been put to one side, as if you were the same person as you had been Before.
In France the Association Nationale des Anciennes Deportées et Internées de la Resistance brought together women who had been imprisoned for resistance activity. This focus meant that although Jewish women who had been active in the Resistance and arrested for these activities could join, those who had been arrested simply for being Jewish could not. There was thus a separate organisation, the Service Central des Deportés Israélites. They worked to help reunite returning deportees with family members, including with children who had been hidden with non-Jewish families, and in some cases were too young to have any sense of their original identity or to easily readjust to their real families.
The separation of the returnees according to the reason for their arrest takes some interpretation. Firstly, around half of those deported for resistance activities returned. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 came home. The prominence given to the former group was therefore partly numerical. However, it was more complex than that. In the post-Liberation settling of scores, whereby collaborators of various types were exposed and punished (officially or unofficially, justly or unjustly), those who had been deported for resistance activities were unassailable. No one could question their patriotism or heroism. The Jews who returned were not part of this myth of ‘resistancialisme’, as Henry Rousso called it, because they could be said to have fallen into German hands as victims. Not only that, but their very survival raised questions of how, if the Nazi goal was to exterminate them, they had managed to return (mirroring in many cases their own questions, their own survivors’ guilt). And of course their accounts of their ordeals shone an unwelcome light on the anti-semitism which had been there before the Occupation, and was still there after it, the anti-semitism which had in many cases led to Jews being betrayed and denounced and which now poisoned the reaction to the returnees.
How could life go on, when the enormity of what they had faced, the physical and mental tortures, the sights and sounds that could not be unseen and unheard, was unacknowledged and buried, not dead, but deep? The survivors of genocide not only had to recover physically from the effects of starvation, exposure, brutal labour and torture, but also from the horror of knowing that they had been condemned to this not for any crime but because of their race. They had lost so many of the people they loved. Not only this, but those who returned home returned to the place where their neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.
The suicide rate amongst Holocaust survivors is reckoned to be almost three times that of the general population. Jean Améry (who had changed his name from Hanns Mayer after the war, to dissociate himself from German culture), only began writing about his experiences in the camps in 1964. He had been initially arrested for resistance activity, but was then ‘demoted’ from political prisoner to Jew, and was imprisoned at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen. In 1976 Améry published the book On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. He took his own life by overdose of sleeping pills in 1978.
Whilst the official verdict on Primo Levi’s death as being a suicide has been disputed, that the effects of what had been done to him and what he had witnessed had continued to haunt and damage him is undisputed. Elie Wiesel said that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”.
When life does go on, how is the fact of what happened in the camps accommodated within everyday existence? The children and grandchildren of survivors have been part of this process too, often discovering only in adulthood, and little by little, what their parents or grandparents experienced. Eva Hoffman heard, as an adult, how her father’s sister had been betrayed by another Jew, who had hoped by that act to make themselves safe.
‘Let’s not talk about these things’, he says lowering his head, and I want to stop too, right now. All this time I’ve done my father the injustice of not knowing this story, and now I can hardly bear to hear it. This is no longer a frightening fairy tale, as it would have been in childhood. … Indecent not to say anything to my parents, indecent to say anything at all: pity is too small for this. … There’s no way to get this part of the story in proportion. It could overshadow everything else, put the light of the world right out. I need seven-league boots to travel from this to where I live. And yet, this is what I must do. A writer of my parents’ generation who was himself in a concentration camp once told me that the Holocaust is the standard by which we should judge the world. But I think that the paradoxical task of my generation, caught within this awful story, is to get adjusted to the ordinary world in which we actually live, to acknowledge the reality given to us. (Hoffman, pp. 252-3)
And Göran Rosenberg, both of whose parents had survived the camps, wrote A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, to tell their story, and that of the shadows they lived with in the years after.
It’s impossible to think you’ve all survived in order for the world to forget what it’s just been through and to go on as if nothing has happened. There must be some point to the fact that you’ve survived, since the main point of the event you’ve survived was that none of you were supposed to survive, that you were all supposed to be annihilated without a trace, without leaving even a splinter of bone behind, still less a name on a death list or a death certificate. So initially you all survive with the assurance that you are the traces that weren’t supposed to exist, and that this is your survival’s particular point. … Why me and not the others? Naturally it’s … an unbearable thought, which has to be pushed aside sooner or later if surviving is to turn into living. So I think it’s initially pushed aside by the assurance that you haven’t survived for yourselves only but for the others, too; that you’re the traces that must not be eradicated, and that you therefore owe a particular duty to the life you’ve been granted, against all the odds and beyond any notion of fairness, and that through this life you must justify the fact that you’re alive while the others are dead. (Rosenberg, pp. 278-9)
‘If surviving is to turn into living’ – that’s the heart of it. Not all managed that transformation.
But as the survivors of the Holocaust, those who spoke and those who remain silent, slip away from us, it becomes ever more urgent to hear, and tell, and re-tell their stories. They weren’t meant to be here, they weren’t meant to bear witness.
There are other survivors too. On Holocaust Memorial Day we do not only remember those who emerged from the darkness of the Nazi genocide, but those who against the odds still live to speak about what happened in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Srebenica, in Darfur.
They are ‘the traces that must not be eradicated’, for the sake of the dead, for the sake of the living, for the sake of their children and ours, for the sake of the generations to come.
Jean Amery – At the Mind’s Limits (1966)
Eva Hoffman – Lost in Translation (1989)
Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (2010)
Göran Rosenberg – A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012)
Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (2016)
For Holocaust Memorial Day, reblogged from That’s How the Light Gets In
In the years of optimism we would read books and puzzle over why, in the heart of civilized Europe, people had happily abandoned democracy, believed fantastical lies, and stood by or enthusiastically joined in as those deemed to blame for the nation’s ills were murdered in their millions. In these dark days, and on this Holocaust Memorial Day, understanding is beginning to gnaw at our bones like an ague.
In times like these, the message of certain books I have read recently seems to illuminate a simple truth: that authoritarianism insinuates itself into peoples lives without drama, but with a kind of quotidinian ordinariness that slowly dispenses with facts.
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Just ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, I have discovered the work of Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish painter who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, aged 40 (all of his family were killed in the Holocaust).
(The two self portraits are from 1940, from his time in an internment camp in Belgium, and from 1943, whilst in hiding in Brussels)
Born in Osnabruck, he moved to Belgium after the Nazis took power, but was arrested there when Belgium was occupied. He was sent to the internment camp at Saint Cyprien (in the Pyrenees) and was imprisoned there. In August/September he succeeded in escaping and returned to Brussels where he went into hiding with his wife Felka Platek. His work during this period is characterised firstly by the number of domestic scenes and still lifes, reflecting the limited scope he had for direct observation, and secondly more surrealistic and allegorical works reflecting the fear with which he lived.
The subjects of war and exile, of fear and sorrow coloured his pictures. Nussbaum developed an allegorical and metaphorical language so as to create artistic ways of expressing the existential threat to his situation and to his very life that he was experiencing. His last piece of work is dated 18 April 1944. A matter of weeks later on 20 June, Felix Nussbaum and his wife, Felka Platek, were arrested in their attic hide-out and were sent with the last transport from the collection camp at Malines (Mechelen) on 31 July to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Clockwise from top left: The Great Disaster, 1939; Fear (Self-Portrait with Niece Marianne), 1941; Jew by the Window, 1943; The Refugee, 1939
I didn’t plan to write about today’s events in the US. But I remembered that I had written something (pre-blog, via Facebook notes) on Obama’s inauguration, and on this blog in 2012 when he was re-elected. The contrast between what I felt then, and what I feel now, is almost too much to bear, too bitter. But to revisit my feelings then, is to assert that those values, those principles, those hopes which inspired me are still with me, unchanged, still strong if battered and bruised. I don’t know what lies ahead – I fear it. But the future isn’t written – it can be written, and we can be part of the writing. We have to believe that ‘the people have the power to redeem the work of fools‘.
So this is what I wrote on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I stand by it, every word.
I can’t recall any moment in my life when the sense of hope and of new possibilities has been so powerful. I know that President Obama will do some things that I will disagree with, and that I will regret some things that he is unable to do, but he is a man of integrity and intelligence, courage and vision, a man whose vision of the world is not bounded by his own state or nation but who understands the developing as well as the developed world’s needs. It’s been a long time coming, but this extraordinary moment is here now, and I know I will be weeping tomorrow as I did on election night, thinking of Dr King, and all of the other martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, thinking of all of those who’ve worked and argued and struggled to make this possible. Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that we ALL could fly. Mr Obama, Mr President, I wish you strength, and courage, and the audacity of that hope you’ve inspired.
And in November 2012, when Obama was elected as President for a second term, I wrote this.
That day I listened to the Flobots song celebrating Anne Braden, a white Southern woman who threw in her lot not with the people she’d grown up with, gone to school with, lived next door to, but with ‘the other America’.
Anne Braden tells how William L Patterson told her, in the early 60s, “You know, you do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” He said, “There is another America.”
And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, he said, “It’s always been here. Ever since the first slave ship arrived, and before. The people who struggled against slavery, the people who rebeled against slavery. The white people who supported them. The people who all through Reconstruction struggled.” He came on down through history of the people who have struggled against injustice. The other America.
Today it feels as if that is lost. As if we have all lost.
John Pavlovitz nails it here:
Let the record show that I greatly lamented the day of his inauguration, and that I promised to join together with other good people to loudly resist and oppose every unscrupulous, dangerous, unjust and dishonest act this new Administration engages in.
History has been littered with horrible people who did terrible things with power, because too many good people remained silent. And since my fear is that we are surely entering one of those periods in our story, I wanted to make sure that I was recorded for posterity:
I do not believe this man’s actions are normal.
I do not believe he is emotionally stable.
I do not believe he cares about the full, beautiful diversity of America.
I do not believe he respects women.
I do not believe he is pro-life other than his own.
I do not believe the sick and the poor and the hurting matter to him in the slightest.
I do not believe he is a man of faith or integrity or nobility.
I do not believe his concern is for anything outside his reflection in the mirror.
I believe he is a danger to our children.
I believe he is a threat to our safety.
I believe he is careless with our people.
I believe he is reckless with his power.
I believe America will be less secure, less diverse, less compassionate, and less decent under his leadership.
So what words can I find today? I feel, as so many of us feel, disbelief, revulsion and fear. I hope I am wrong to feel this so strongly. Hope, such as it is, lies in not only the numbers but the calibre of the people who feel this way, the people who are moved to protest, to assert that we need bridges, not walls, to march, to boycott – and who will go on opposing the version of America that Trump asserts.
We need heroes
Don’t put your fist up
Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands
We’re the architects of our last stand
(Flobots, Fight with Tools)
A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)