I’ve been thinking about the holocaust a lot lately, and not by choice. I chose to do a subject called “Memory and Memoirs in 20th Century Europe” for my French major, and I apparently had no idea what I was in for.
What else was it going to be about if not the aftermath of World War two, with a bit of Stalin thrown in for good measure?
I am required to read two novels about the holocaust, an anonymous account of life for accused nazi supporters in Berlin at the end of World War two, and then two Gulag-related reads, one by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sound uplifting? Think again.
Admittedly, I’m a massive fan of war literature. Over the holidays, after seeing Birdsong in the West end, I bought some Ernest Hemimgway (A Farewell to Arms) and some war poetry; followed by All Quiet on the Western Front. The last, especially is an amazing read. It’s especially interesting because it tells the account of a young German soldier; we’re so accustomed to reading tales told to us by the allies. While it seems obvious, it really does make you remember both sides of a war; not simply those who won. Both suffer intense and immeasurable hardship, and I think we all need to be constantly reminded of this. It’s easier to forget this living in a country so far from these ancient conflict zones, and from those we fight in today. And while it seems obvious to state that these German soldiers were young, conflicted and damned men, suffering hardships that equalled those of the allies; we do so often forget that not all of the people who live in the countries we’re fighting in these days are much different. In fact, our troops are probably much better off than them.
If you want to get a taste for the horrifying spoils of war and of conflict, look no further than the brilliant cacophony of holocaust literature. And if you want to feel disarmingly depressed and disillusioned, you’ve found your new favourite genre.
Some people love it, some people hate it. Because some people love to feel horrible, and others don’t like to be reminded that we can be so horrible, or that such horrible things are even possible. But most people read it by choice. I, however, get to delve in the world of the holocaust not by choice, but with the goal of writing a cheery essay at the end of it, and exploring the literary tropes and tools of writers trying to convey their memories.
It’s all very fascinating, but does put a dampener on the day.
The thing that makes the holocaust so unbearably horrible is that it never ends. There is no respite. Yes, it ended, but while it was occurring, everything that it consisted of was unending.
When I visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin, this was one of the few things that really struck me. We’ve all heard the horrible stories; we’ve all seen the photos, relived the memories of survivors etc etc. But when you choose to go to a camp for several hours, to see where it all took place, you undertake something quite different. Your tour guide keeps reeling off horrifying story after story, and you just want it to end. Or at least to forget about it for ten minutes and then come back. But you can’t. Because within those walls, it doesn’t go away, and you’re left with a heavy stone in your gut, stretching and contorting your insides; pulling your stomach downwards.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about awful experiences, I always consider the best possible situation. For example, maybe if I’d been on the Titanic, I would have been a first class passenger, so it would have been okay; I would have got into a boat. Or, if I’d been in prison, it would have been minimum security, and for a very short amount of time. You always consider the best possible scenario, and then your brain is able to slow and calm, knowing that, okay: you could survive this.
There is no way to make your experience in the holocaust any easier; any less horrible.
As we moved between sections of the camp, I thought, well, this doesn’t sound too bad, maybe you could survive if you were assigned to this work duty. Until it was explained. And then you realised it was worse than the others.
At no point does the memory of the holocaust allow understanding; your brain can’t let you believe that something so impossibly terrible happened to so many people. And after visiting a place where it occurred, and realising these things, they’re constantly in the back of my mind as I read.
I’m currently ploughing through Charlotte Delbo’s memoirs: Auschwitz and After. Fortunately, she has chosen a unique approach in a sea of memoirs than can often end up looking the same. You feel guilty for thinking “Oh no, not another one”, in the same way that we hear about poverty in the third world and dismiss it, because we’ve heard enough. But Delbo mixes poetry, narrative and poetic prose to convey an indescribable memory; an event that defies representation.
The repetition; the ongoing, seemingly never ending chain of days moves on and on like you’re suspended somewhere between purgatory and hell. And Delbo captures this not by simply repeating a series of torrid memories to us. She lets us feel the rhthym of the repetition; encapsulates the over-consuming nature of thirst; the longing for a time that no longer exists; the man she loved who is lost in a distant, time-worn memory.
I know that the reason these testimonies exist is not simply to try and describe or explain an event that does not allow it. It’s mostly so that it isn’t forgotten; so we can’t escape its memory; so we can’t ignore its presence.
Sadly, it does often lie unthought of, mostly because it’s easier for us that way. Life is always easier when we turn a blind eye to the truth of our ridiculously twisted, ruined world.
Just as along as we don’t lie in ruin despairing at the past or present, the memory won’t be wasted. Just as long as we lie to down to see how slow or fast the clouds fly by; how long a day can seem; how far the sky can stretch above us; the memory won’t be wasted.
After all, “what is closer to eternity than a day?”