Posts Tagged Primo Levi
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.
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’.
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)
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)