Tag Archives: Holocaust

The Silence of Bystanders – Auschwitz

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.

Nicole Blausztajn

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? 

Auschwitz

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.

Doris Clare Zinkeisen 1945, Human Laundry IWM Art.LD5468

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.

Vienna
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

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.

Related Posts

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)

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Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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