About eight years ago, a guide at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin asked for my views about the Memorial’s architecture. “What do you think of these rectangular slabs?” she asked thoughtfully. “A chilling reminder of the worst times and horrible crimes perpetrated against the Jews in German history,” I responded pensively.
My trip to the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ at the centre of the German capital was heart wrenching. It was a chilling reminder of the shattered dreams and lives of the estimated 6 million Jews, mercilessly murdered by the Nazis. At the Information Centre underneath the Memorial, the Holocaust victims have names and faces. They were not just statistics.
Such memorials keep alive the memory of the horrific crimes committed against humanity. One of the most chilling aspects of history is that what happened before can recur. That is perhaps why genuine historians and litterateurs attach so much value to various forms of memory and their preservation.
It was in June 1999 when the Bundestag, the German parliament, approved the Memorial’s construction. Passing through a seemingly endless sea of rectangular stone slabs and blocks, one is overwhelmed by deep anxiety, countless sighs and too many questions.
I too had a question which I asked the guide at the end of our conversation: At any rate, why is it crucial to preserve memory? Is it an individual or collective responsibility, or both?
What is happening in Ukraine is a grim reminder that the horrors of violence can occur even in the 21st century. No matter who is setting the agenda, indulging in gate keeping or controlling the narrative, thousands of innocent citizens continue to suffer. In our modern world, where geostrategic relations and geo-economics are decisive and paramount, ideas like human rights, civil liberties and free speech often take a backseat. What takes precedence, however, is territorial control, exploitation of resources and control over the society and the narrative. Sadly, it is often the powerful who get to set the agenda, to tell the storyof their liking with the aim to distort the story of the dispossessed.
Ever wondered why the stories are important and why people feel the urge to write books, memoirs, diaries and letters to tell a story? To begin with, why is it important to write? Does writing make any difference to the author or to the wider world at large? Many grapple with rules of the imagination and keep asking this important question: “Why do people write?”
Are there any easy answers or more questions?
Is it to preserve memory? Is keeping memory alive their sole objective? Why is memory so important? What is material memory? What about oral history? What would happen if no records were kept and nothing was written or preserved?
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, has eloquently answered the questions with regard to memory and its preservation. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10, 1986, besides many other important things, Wiesel asserted how he “tried to keep memory alive” and made a conscious effort “to fight those who would forget”.
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant,” he said.
Unsure how he survived the Holocaust during his captivity in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in 1944–45, Wiesel candidly admits in Night that he was rather shy and did nothing spectacular to save himself. Was it a result of a miracle? How did he survive and not perish? Why it became important for Holocaust survivors like him to document the ordeal and to preserve a record of their suffering?
Wiesel’s account is heart wrenching, especially with its no-nonsense and straightforward narration. The emphasis remains on the portrayal of the very complex father–son relationship between the author and his parent. Questions are also asked whether Wiesel applied the same yardstick to tell the stories of the Palestinians.
Following the devastation caused by the First World War, Germany sank deep into what came to be known as the Great Depression in 1929–30. Millions were out of work. Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels came to the rescue and put the blame on the Jews and Communists. What Nazi troops did to the Jews sends a chill down the spine even now.
Historically, propaganda is considered an honourable word. Initially, the basic idea was all about propagating a particular doctrine while using various tools of communication like posters, graffiti, murals, newspaper articles, films and radio talks. Dr. Dietrich, the press chief of the Nazi party from 1931 until his dismissal before the Second World War, significantly changed the definition of propaganda in the 20th century.
After Dietrich, the role played by Goebbels in propagating the Hitler Myth was a paradigm shift in how propaganda could work in ‘Othering’ various peoples. In Germany, the Jews and Communists were the ‘Others’. Both featured heavily in the Nazi propaganda as ‘enemies of the German people’. Goebbels used films, radio and posters and newspapers to reach out to Germans with a dangerous message. Not only did he build the image of Hitler as a messiah and saviour of the Germans but he also telegraphed a message that if Germany were to become great again, Hitler was the man to trust. Who else, if not Hitler? Earlier, it was mostly about Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ascended to the throne in 1888. The German people favoured and supported the ambitions of an arrogant and impulsive emperor.
Nevertheless, if memory was not kept alive by Holocaust survivors like Viktor E. Frankl, Primo Levi, Wiesel and many others, we would not have come to know about the crimes perpetrated against humanity. How could one have known about the Holocaust? Who could have known that about 6 million Jews were persecuted and exterminated during the Nazi regime? If there was no Holocaust literature, how could we have known about the most feared Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz–Birkenau in Poland and Buchenwald in Weimar in Germany?
Holocaust literature is now an established genre. One is also conscious about the Holocaust’s uncomfortable relationship with literature. Menachem Kaiser describes this relationship as ‘complicated’. In his words, “The horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald need no artistic amplification.” When crimes of such magnitude are perpetrated, documentation and preservation become crucial. It far outweighs literary aesthetics. Anne Frank’s diary is a case in point.
Levi, an Italian Jew and Holocaust survivor, who wrote If This Is A Man, Truce and The Periodic Table, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Like neurologist and psychiatrist Frankl, he was also among the lucky ones to survive. He wrote about the horrors of violence that he had witnessed as a captive at Auschwitz.
In his book, If This Is A Man, Levi wrote of life in the Nazi death camps without bitterness. At Auschwitz, he was denied water to drink. To quote him, “Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. Hieristkeinwarum’ (There is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”
Abandoning hope in extreme adverse conditions is absolutely normal. Conversely, fighting hopelessness is an act of rebellion. Many captives in some of the Nazi concentration camps gave up hope. It was comprehensible. Though there were survivors who neither gave up nor lost hope. Instead, they chose to search for meanings under hostile circumstances throughout their internment in the camps.
Some captives, as Frankl noted in Man’s Search for Meaning, suffered from the ‘Delusion of Reprieve’, a psychiatric condition. A few others consciously chose to survive to tell the tale, though. There are many other fascinating books which cover various facets of the Holocaust. Some of them include The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris; The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; The Brothers of Auschwitz, a novel by Malka Adler; The Choice by Edith Eger; and My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution by Jonathan Wittenberg. Moreover, books such as A Woman in Berlin and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem cover other facets.
A seemingly simple act of keeping hope alive and of preserving memory through memoirs, books and diaries entails a cost. Conscientious writers feel that it is their moral responsibility to document the ordeal. They are also not unaware of the consequences. Erasure of memory is fought by preservation of memory. The battle is often between memory and forgetfulness. That is the takeaway from the Holocaust literature.
Meanwhile, my question to the woman guide at the Memorial was: Why this Memorial? “It is all about memory.” For posterity, I added. She nodded in agreement.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Memory for Posterity")
(Views expressed are personal)
Gowhar Geelani is a Chevening Fellow, journalist and commentator. He has authored Kashmir: Rage and Reason