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)