The Power of Words: Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

In my first HMD blog, six years ago, I talked about how, in preparation for genocide, the power of words is used to dehumanise the intended victims:

The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives.  First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity.  For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice.   Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents  is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability.  As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed.  This load may also scream.

That’s why we must call out such language when it is applied to refugees, immigrants, or any group of ‘others’, whenever we hear it and whoever is using it.

“How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?” she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. “They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring.”

This quote featured in a 2007 interview with a well-known television writer.   The interviewer, who herself was Polish, didn’t challenge her, partly, I suspect, through shock.  Much more recently (in 2015) a notorious ‘newspaper’ columnist, speaking of the deaths of up to 700 migrants in a Mediterranean shipwreck, said:

“These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.”

This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

Perhaps neither the TV writer nor the notorious columnist was familiar with the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I don’t know.  But surely anyone, however ill-informed, should baulk at describing other human beings in such terms?

It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.(Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

For the sake of the future, we have to oppose, vocally and vociferously, those who use the language of genocide whether through ignorance or with deliberation.

But it’s equally important, as Zoe Williams says, to articulate human empathy, to talk about the lives of others as cherishable.  And that includes those who are lost to us, who were murdered because they were seen as less than human.

I have reservations about fictionalising the Holocaust, when there are so very many first-hand stories yet to be told, and when there are still – always – those who claim that the whole thing is a fiction.  But then I recall the TV series Holocaust, broadcast in the late 1970s.

Holocaust_(TV_miniseries)_dvd

For all its faults – and it had many – and for all the opprobrium that it attracted, from critics and from Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it served a tremendously important function.   For many viewers it was a shock – it was for me, and I thought I was well-informed – and in Germany especially so.  Despite all of the efforts post-war to educate and inform, it was this fictionalised account, not the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, that really made many people understand.  They saw  people like themselves, living lives not unlike theirs, and then they saw what was done to them.  In the course of the Holocaust mini-series, the Weiss family experienced Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Sobibor. Wiesel argued that this was a mistake, that ‘the story of one child, the destiny of one victim, the reverberations of one outcry would be more effective’.

What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.

The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show

Clive James was more positive, although he acknowledged that no character existed except to make a point, or to illustrate a particular aspect of Holocaust history, and that (crucially) the script was clunky (‘the use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase’).  However, he concluded:

There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. Holocaust avoided that.

If Wiesel is right, and it is both impossible and vital to tell these stories, it is a task to be undertaken with trepidation.  There are so few survivors now, so few still here and able to give their own accounts.  But the way we tell their stories must honour the witnesses, the living and those who did not survive.  It must be truthful, not just in terms of getting the facts right (details matter, when those details are disputed by those who would wish to assign the Holocaust to the category of fiction or myth), but in terms of creating people who ‘ring true’, and enabling us to invest in their lives and in their fate.

In Louise Doughty’s devastating and powerful novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, she draws us in to the world of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into their rich and complex culture, into the lives of one family, Josef and Anna, their new son Emil, and the kumpania to which they belong.  We see even then the beginning of the assault upon their culture, with the introduction of laws that require them to be registered and fingerprinted and to inform the authorities of their routes and destinations.  And if we know anything at all of European 20th century history, we know this will not be the end of it.

Much later, Josef, dying of a fever in a camp, reflects on the nature of loss:

How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss.  You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have.  When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine.  Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads.  Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more.  Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in.  When we got here, they took those.  They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp.  So many people have been separated from their families.  Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … If I cannot even move my limbs, let alone raise my body to relieve myself with dignity, then I cannot really call my body my own either.  All I have left are my thoughts – and breath, each small breath that comes so shallow and strange into my lungs.  (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)

We do not need to share Josef’s (or Louise Doughty’s) Roma heritage to feel empathy, to recognise the humanity here.  Within this one passage we follow and feel that inexorable progress from a bureaucratic attack on the Roma way of life (‘The implementation of Law 117 … to curb the nuisance caused by so-called Gypsies and other Travelling Persons and Vagabonds’) to the man alone and reduced to ‘the next small breath’.

hmd

There are many first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, from those who survived and from those who did not, but very few from its Roma victims.  The destruction of whole communities, and with them of customs, and dialects, and names and histories, means that creative works of imagination are vital, to bring them back to life for us.  And so what Louise Doughty does here is of profound value.  Richard Rorty, in a passage which Doughty quotes at the beginning of her novel, talks about how human solidarity might be achieved:

It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?” This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel.  (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. xiv)

The power of words, used to increase sensitivity to others, to extend our sympathies, as George Eliot put it.

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne – The American Notebooks)

Words have immense power to hurt or to heal, to damn or to save.  And when we say of a novel or a play that it’s ‘only a story’ we are forgetting that.  Those that have the skill to create or recreate a world, to draw people in whom we can believe, to give those people words to move and engage us, their ‘stories’ can shake us from our facile assumptions and prejudices, and can arm us against those who want to make us hate ‘them’.

We need those words, now more than ever.

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart

(Primo Levi, If this is a Man)

 

 

, , , , , ,

  1. Leave a comment

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: