The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — why forgetting is not an option
In his epic and comprehensive work, The Second World War, Anthony Beevor writes with customary economy, ‘On 27 January in the middle of the afternoon, a reconnaissance patrol from the 107th Rifle Division (attached to the Red Army’s 60th Army of the 1st Belorussian Front) emerged from a snowbound forest to discover the most terrible symbol in modern history.’
This was the moment when Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the extesnive network of Nazi extermination camps in Europe, was discovered and the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed.
Still today it is almost impossible to fathom the scale and extent of the mass slaughter and barbarism that was orchestrated in service to the perverse and murderous Nazi fascist ideology of racial supremacy. Even more difficult to comprehend is the way it succeeded in polluting the hearts and minds of the untold thousands either directly engaged in administering and carrying out this industrial human slaughter, or the millions who acquiesced in it, beguiled into believing that eradicating European Jewry from the face of the earth, along with homosexuals, the disabled and mentally ill, Slavs, Roma, and others deemed sub-human, was consonant with human progress.
That this project of mass slaughter took place at the hands of a nation that was in the vanguard of Western Enlightenment, home to some of the world’s finest thinkers, philosophers, musicians, novelists, and artists, provides a stark warning as to the perils of lapsing into complacency when it comes to associating modernity with civilisation.
Primo Levi’s classic memoir of life as an inmate at Auschwitz, If This is a Man, amounts to an exploration of the human condition that is required reading. It confirms that the very worst of humanity co-existed at Auschwitz alongside the very best.
The conviction that life has a purpose is rooted in every fibre of man, it is a property of the human substance. Free men give many names to this purpose, and think and talk a lot about its nature. But for us the question is simpler. Today, in this place, our only purpose is to reach the spring.
The scale of collaboration with the rounding-up and shipping of Jews from across Europe to Nazi death camps should likewise never be forgotten. All over Eastern Europe, where antisemitism has deep cultural roots stretching back to medieval times, thousands actively and willingly collaborated in the Holocaust. In Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere, the Nazis found a ready supply of manpower willing to engage in the rounding up and murder of, in many cases, men, women and children who had formerly been neighbours of those turning them in to the Nazis.
It is why the recrudescence and the glorification of Nazi ideology across Eastern Europe, replete with Holocaust revisionism, marks a chilling rejoinder to those who’d allowed themselves to believe that the Holocaust was a one-off never to be repeated event. On a broader level, the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and nativism across Europe as a whole contains echoes of the 1930s, when in similar conditions of economic dislocation and depression, the seeds of the Holocaust were planted.
Thus the Holocaust must be understood as the culmination of a process which unfolded over time, rooted in demonstrable material factors, rather than as some kind of phenomenological descent into evil. As Bertolt Brecht wrote after the Second World War, ‘The womb from that which crawled remains fertile’.
Perhaps the most graphic and powerful accounts of the Holocaust is that provided by Vasily Grossman in his article, Treblinka, which he wrote after entering this infamous Nazi extermination camp of the same name, which as with Auschwitz was located in occupied Poland. Grossman, in his capacity as a Soviet war correspondent, entered the camp in the wake of advancing Red Army troops from the aforementioned 1st Belorussian Front in the summer of 1944, six months prior to the liberation of Auschwitz.
I trust you will agree that his account is worth quoting at length:
Stories of the living dead of Treblinka, who had until the last minute kept not just the image of humans but the human soul as well, shake one to the bottom of one’s heart and make it impossible to sleep. The stories of women trying to save their sons and committing magnificent doomed feats, of young mothers who hid their babies in heaps of blankets. I’ve heard the stories of ten-year-old girls, who comforted their sobbing parents with a heavenly wisdom, about a boy who shouted when entering the gas chamber: ‘Russia will take revenge! Mama, don’t cry!’
I was told about dozens of doomed people who began to struggle. I was told about a young man who stabbed an SS officer with a knife, about a young man who had been brought here from the rebellious Warsaw ghetto. He had miraculously managed to hide a grenade from the Germans and threw it into the crowd of executioners when he was already naked. We were told about the battle between a group of rebels and guards and the SS that lasted all night. Shots and explosions of grenades were resounding until the morning, and when the sun rose, the whole square was covered with the bodies of dead rebels…
We were told about a tall girl who snatched a carbine from the hands of a Wachmann [guard] on ‘The Road of No Return’ and fought back. The tortures and execution she was subjected to was terrible. Her name is unknown, and nobody can pay it the respect it deserves.
Indeed, yes, forgetting is not an option.
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