Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. [Marion Tunki, survivor]
Anyone who has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau must ask themselves, how was this allowed to happen? You view the piles of suitcases, shoes, hair, glasses, gas canisters and ask how could it happen that 1 million people died in this camp?
Anyone who follows the tweets of @AuschwitzMuseum sees family photographs of ordinary people, children, women, men, and reads the brief account of what happened to them. They too will wonder how it was possible. Here’s an example from Sunday 30th January 2022:
30 January 1937 | A French Jewish girl Nicole Blausztajn was born in Paris. She arrived at #Auschwitzon 19 August 1942 in a transport of 997 Jews deported from Drancy. She was murdered in a gas chamber together with 896 people.
I asked such questions when I visited Auschwitz in September 2017. Similar questions are posed by Piotr Cywiński, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, reported in an article in the Guardian on the 77th Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. You can read the article ‘The biggest task is to combat indifference’: Auschwitz Museum turns visitors’ eyes to current eventsby Shaun Walker by following the link.
Is the world becoming [more?] indifferent to the suffering of others, and the mass horrors imposed by regimes on minorities? In Yemen? The Uyghurs? LGBT+ peoples? People of Colour? Refugees?
The Silence of the Bystanders
I am a historian and seek to understand the events of the past. I was a history teacher, believing that it was my responsibility to help young people understand events in the past and be able to speak out about them as they should. I am a citizen of the world and of Europe and I believe that it is our duty as citizens to keep our mouths open (a maxim ascribed to both Aristotle and Gunter Grass).
One of the most poignant sights of the final months of the war was of local people, at Belsen-Bergen I think, being required to visit the camp, situated in Germany, unlike Auschwitz, and to bury the many, many corpses of those who had died there and been left unburied. At Belsen camp nurses were required to wash patients at the camp after it had been liberated. No doubt they were reluctant to carry out these tasks, but someone was thinking that they needed to know what had happened to the victims. Bystanders must confront their participation.
The BBC radio broadcast by Richard Dimbleby, his account of driving into Belsen with the Allied troops on 19th April 1945, is still powerful every time you hear it. You can still listen here.
I cannot remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. I grew up after the war, in fear of what men could do to other people, in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Our generation wanted to be sure such things would never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ say the war memorials. But it appears that we do forget. Some of us forget.
Let us use whatever means we have to remind ourselves and others, to be sure that we do not allow bystanders to be silent or ignorant of such atrocities in the future. Some will respond to films, such as Schindler’s List, or Sophie’s Choice. I have read criticism of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its use in schools because it distorts young people’s understanding of concentration camps and the reactions of local people to the camps.
Twitter accounts may capture the attention by featuring the individuals, the 6 million individuals who lost their lives.
Permanent memorials, as well as special days, can also draw attention to what must not be forgotten. I have visited the memorials in Vienna and in Berlin.
And, of course, books.
And here are some non-fiction books.
If this is a man by Primo Levi (1947). The Italian writer was a chemist, and this enabled him to survive the camp in Auschwitz, but he died in 1987, possibly by suicide.
Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1959 English edition). Another survivor, a psychiatrist, who wrote about his response to being in the Auschwitz and other camps.
A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011). 230 French women who were active against the German Occupation of France were sent to Auschwitz. Some of them survived, but many did not.
After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2004). The daughter of survivors, a Jewish writer considers the effects on her contemporaries of the Holocaust.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952 English edition), which revealed a life so brutally cut short, a childhood in Amsterdam and hiding as a young woman.
On not being silent bystanders
Auschwitz did not fall out of the sky. Bergen-Belsen did not fall out of the sky. The Holocaust did not fall out of the sky. They were the ideas of people who believed that it was ok to kill off ‘othered’ ethnic groups. And people stood by, in silence, and allowed them to do this.
We must speak out, reject silence, even if that is all we can do when people are oppressed.
Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)
Tales from the Vienna Streets (The Hare with Amber Eyes) (July 2013)
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (May 2018)
Bookword in Poland (Sept 2017)