The Holocaust Memorial and Viewing Auschwitz Through Art…

Posted: January 30, 2015 in (All Things) CULTURE
Tags: , , , , ,
The various Holocaust memorial events across Europe that marked the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation received a great deal of (justified) coverage on news channels and in papers in recent days.
I’m not sure just how many candles will have been lit across various countries two days ago to commemorate those unfathomable multitudes who were murdered at the death camp in Poland, at other Nazi camps, and also people killed in other genocides beyond World War II, but were they all placed together they might’ve been visible from  space.

There have been entire libraries of art, film and literature inspired by the horror and suffering of the Holocaust of course. I made the point a few days ago that this abundance of Holocaust-related material can sometimes have the side-effect of making people feel ‘over-fed’ on the subject, to the extent that it sometimes somewhat lessens the impact of the Holocaust’s reality. Which is why events like the Holocaust memorials of this week are hugely important in reminding people, even someone like me who considers himself fairly well-versed on the subject.

And sometimes new, inventive ways to express something about what happened in Nazi Europe provide a very effective means of re-connecting with the reality of the subject on a subjective level; a level that bypasses facts, figures and dates, and bypasses language (written or spoken) entirely, connecting instead with the purer sense level of perception. A very good example of this was provided by the Dutch theater company Hotel Modern and their work Kamp from 2010; to start with, it was a 36-by-33-foot model of Auschwitz populated by 3,000 three-inch-tall figures. Pauline Kalker, the founder of the Dutch company, is herself the child of a Holocaust survivor. The compelling installation, made primarily of plain gray corrugated cardboard, included the guard towers, barracks, crematoriums, gas chambers with buckets of gas pellets, a dining hall for the guards, a train and tracks, and of course the infamous words that greeted Auschwitz inmates as they arrived at the camps; ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (“Work Makes You Free”). ‘Kamp’ combined music, theater, sculpture, puppetry and video to convey its highly inventive, novel, highly stylised, absorbing and ultimately very moving expression of Auschwitz.

The spirit of’ Kamp could be said to have followed somewhat in the footsteps of the acclaimed 1986 graphic novel, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which portrayed Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, opening the door for Holocaust stories to be conveyed in styles or genres that for a long time would’ve been seen as too irreverent and perhaps disrespectful. Something like Kamp isn’t to everyone’s tastes, of course; but it was a remarkable work of art and expression that was aimed at the senses and not the intellect. It is, the argument can be made, in the unfiltered senses that the strongest impressions and perceptions occur, without the intellect attempting to rationalise the information.

Some 300 Auschwitz survivors returned to the grim location for the remembrance ceremony under a giant tent. One of them was the British Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who spoke emotionally. “We survivors do not want our past to be our children’s future,” he told the gathering in Poland. Mr Kent’s speech was possibly the most moving and, beyond the specific concerns about Jewish communities in Europe and the world, was calling for the respecting of pluralism and diversity in our societies. That sentiment is particularly pertinent given the climate in many societies right now where Far-Right organisations are attracting great attention and where racial and religious divisions have come much more to the fore; there is no one more powerful than a survivor of the most systematic and brutal ethnic cleansing in modern history to warn people today of the ultimate dangers of both Far-Right politics and racial and religious hatred.

Some people have reacted unfavorably to what they view as the media and the politicians ‘overdoing’ the coverage of the Holocaust remembrance events, particularly at a time when other mass killings and persecutions have gone on (or are presently going on) in the world, including, as far as many are concerned, the Israeli state’s actions against Gaza. But I disagree with that view: the Holocaust should be actively remembered and its survivors, who are fewer in number with each passing year, are owed the platform to speak about their horrific experiences and to express their views. Because coverage of the subject and the airing of those voices and memories doesn’t only commemorate the suffering of the past and the vast injustice carried out against enormous civilian populations, but it reminds everyone anew about the true nature of what happened and warns about the fact that it could easily happen again, if not to the Jewish communities necessarily then to some other community that may find itself the hate-figure or scapegoat of a society at some time.

While I entirely agree that more pressing tragedies like the plight of the Syrian people or the massacres in Nigeria need to be given a lot more coverage and popular-consciousness focus than they’ve been receiving in Western media, I don’t think the present focus on remembering the Holocaust has any bearing on that. And, especially while the last remaining survivors of Auschwitz and the other camps are still alive (which they won’t be for much longer), it remains entirely important to mark and remember those events for all the empathy, all the lessons and all the warning they can impart to us.

I watched a couple of programmes on the BBC this week focused on Holocaust survivors and their lives after being liberated; the programmes were naturally very moving, enabling even someone like me who’s read a lot of books on the Nazis and the Holocaust and watched countless documentaries on the subject, to reconnect anew with the same original feelings and reactions I had when I first saw Auschwitz footage on TV as a child – images that always remained in my mind.

Those grainy black-and-white images of the concentration camp prisoners staring with haunted eyes from behind barb-wire fences made so much of an impression on my mind as a child in fact that I can readily bring them to mind at any time and they are a more prominent fixture of my psyche than any of the detailed passages or facts in whatever books I’ve read on the subject. Which goes back to the point about something like the Kamp installation and the power of sensory information.

As all historians note, the Holocaust occurred in a supposedly enlightened, modern, educated country and not in some far-off wilderness cut-off from modern life. With enough deep-seated and widespread hatred of a religious or racial minority and a state that has been taken over by extreme right-wing politics, something similar could conceivably happen some time in the future; what happened in Kosovo and Bosnia was less than twenty years ago, bear in mind. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told the gathering of leaders, including France’s President Hollande, that Europe today “looks more like 1933 than 2015”; a troubling, if understandable, observation. Another survivor of the Nazi horrors, Henry Wuga, told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “A government made a decision to eradicate a whole people. It is absolutely mind boggling and it should not happen again.”


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