In this powerful blog ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day 2015, journalist Hugo Rifkind reflects on why we must all take a moment to remember.
Don’t start talking about the Middle East just because it’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This is all I ask. Whatever you think of the Middle East, just don’t.
Talk about something else. Talk about Auschwitz, maybe. Talk about a space which is probably bigger than any open space you have ever seen, unless you have been to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Imagine it being cleared - from farmland, from forest, from everything - in order to create a place to kill.
Imagine the laying of the railway, which comes in, and then stops. This is the end of the line. Talk about the people who alighted from trains there. Talk about where they got on the trains, and who told them to. Once, they were like anybody else. Then they were here, for this, at the end of the line. Talk about all that had happened to them before, and how many people it took to make it all happen.
Narrow it down to bricks, if you like. There are 300 buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast new camp built after the original Auschwitz burst at the seams. 300. That’s a lot of bricks. Red ones, mainly. Human hands put one upon the other. Did they want to be doing this, or were they forced? Did they know what all of these red bricks were for? Did they suspect? What would have happened if every last one of them, forced or otherwise, had refused? Would it all have just... stopped? What would you have done, if you were them?
Talk about farm cottages, converted into gas chambers. Hard to talk about them for long, really, but give it a crack. How would you convert a cottage into a gas chamber? Where are you going to start, with that one? Imagine yourself sitting outside, of an evening, perhaps smoking a pipe, musing about how it would best be done. Somebody did that.
And the things that happened in the gas chambers? Even harder to talk about that. So don’t, if you don’t want to. I give you a pass. Talk about after. Talk about a room full of hair. A room. Full of hair. I know, I know, everybody talks about the bloody hair - one brief trip to a concentration camp, and it’s all hair, hair, hair - but still. Do. Talk about your sister’s hair, or your dad’s or your grandmother’s, and how it would look if it was sheared off, clumped, tangled in with the hair of others, and left to dry for three quarters of a century. Dusty and stiff. Hair that makes you not want to breathe when you are near it, in case a bit breaks off, and invades you with the air.
Talk about shoes. Another cliche, I know, but talk about them anyway. Have you got any kids? Younger siblings? You know the size their shoes are? You’d find others that size in Auschwitz. Go there, and your eye will seek them out; all that remains of somebody who never wore shoes any bigger. Imagine killing a child, and then having to look at his or her shoes. Ten children, and their shoes. A hundred children, and their shoes, or a thousand. Wouldn’t some small part of you think that all the evil in the world could be stopped, forever, if somebody took a slow, proper look at a pair of tiny children’s shoes? Talk about that not being the case. Because it isn’t, is it?
We categorise, when we talk about the Holocaust. On the one side we put the Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals and dissidents. On the other, the Germans, and their various helpers; some Poles, Ukrainians, occasional French. How much sense, though, does that make? Is there anything particularly Jewish about a tiny foot in a tiny shoe? Is there anything particularly German about putting one brick upon another?
It is not strange that the victims of the Holocaust should feel a certain ownership of it. It did, after all, happen to them. For a Jew, for a gypsy, for many, many others, the Holocaust is not intangible; theoretical; an article of faith. It’s a kid who was murdered at seven, and thus never got to be your great uncle, over and over again.
Yet the true horror of those millions dead, it seems to me, is not the horror of what one tribe did to others. It is of what people did to people. And it is a true act of blinkered faith, I tend to think, to believe that the configuration of these tribes was somehow inevitable, or even terribly important. Anybody could have done it to anybody. This is what humans can do. Talk about that. Talk about which side you’d be on, if something like this happened again. And talk about how you’re so damn sure.
It didn’t happen in the Middle East, where barbarity sneaks in alongside the madness and fear. Nor in Africa, where trauma has been layered upon trauma for centuries. It happened here, in Europe. In lands of cellos, and neckties, and bicycles. The dead and killers alike knew china teapots, Mozart, varieties of cheese. Family doctors, picnics, afternoon strolls. Then, one day, they cast all that aside, and began to slide towards something else. From laws, to smashed windows, to badges. From ghettos to trains, to everything else. People like you and me.
This is the point of remembering the Holocaust. It’s not an act of honour for those who died, or an act of defiance against those who killed them. That’s too easy. Rather, it is like the coin carried by an alcoholic, to remind him not to drink. To remember is to remain aware that we, as humans, balance on the very lip of the unspeakable; always far closer to toppling than we might wish to admit. All of us, everywhere, all the time