“I am your witness”

A Regional Ambassador Alumni’s thoughts on Ambassador Conference 2019

On Monday 1 July, Ambassadors from across the country joined together in a shared passion and a common goal; to seek knowledge, understanding, inspiration and above all to declare with the Holocaust Educational Trust, “I am your witness”.

The role of the witness is, indeed, a complex and troublesome one. You need only turn to survivor literature, and even the workshops that were on offer to ambassadors this year, to begin to explore why. ‘Seeing and unseeing the past’, ‘writing the unthinkable’, ‘memory distortion’ all allude to the inherent emotional and intellectual difficulties that accompany not only studying and commemorating the Holocaust, but striving to do something with that knowledge.

The messages and sentiments offered by the keynote speakers throughout the conference, further intensified this awareness. Renowned historian Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann introduced us to the challenges that face historians and students of the Holocaust. Issues of what we can understand of perpetration and the subsequent, detailed complexities that reside within that; of representation and what ‘knowledge’ is available to us; of the voices of the victims essential place in our study but ultimately the overwhelming limitedness of our intellectual, cognitive and emotional capabilities to understand the realities of the events these individuals experienced. Our ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ therefore rests in the shadows of the Holocaust and what survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi call an ‘unimaginable reality’.

Lord Browne of Madingley similarly indicated that what we come to observe in the landscapes of concentration camps and in the perimeters of our Holocaust education is but the framework of the events. He related that upon his visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau he is mostly stunned but how remarkably ordinary it seems. He is struck by how the sun shines, the birds sing, the trees continue to grow and chime in the wind, and joggers run their routes passed the remnants of mass cruelty and destruction. Yet as unsettling and misplaced as this seems, it is testament to the fact that life goes on and indeed it must. However, what we must not move on from, what must not be left behind in the continuing pushing on of life, is the truth of what happened during the Holocaust. Our Holocaust education therefore must be the commanding force for where we go next, namely, what we do with our knowledge.

Often when we study and talk about the Holocaust we talk in terms of absence. The result of this produces an unsettling, sometimes confusing, language of distortion and paradox seeking to give presence to precisely this absence. Professor Robert Eaglestone who invited ambassadors to a close reading of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Deathfugue’ brought this fact to life. However, what became apparent throughout the conference was a prompting to shift this narrative; to talk in terms of presence and thus establish a language that affirms and values life above all else. This is not in order to deny or defer the realities of the perishing of six million Jewish individuals in the Holocaust, but in order to activate the role of the witness for the sake of those who lived before they died and for those who survived.

Annabel Pattle

Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassador Alumnus, Annabel Pattle

Nick Robinson, Maurice Blik, Robert Rinder, Louisa Clein and Noemie Lopein all stood to transform this narrative and call us to an active witnessing. And how did they do this? Through affirming the stories of life that should not be overshadowed by, nor deny, the stories of suffering and death in the Holocaust. Nick Robinson, our honorary Ambassador, reminded us that it is through encountering the stories of the Holocaust, tales of family, love, courage, faith, resilience, hopes and dreams that open the door to the intricate and profound humanness of the individuals who lived and died through the Holocaust, and draws us closer. It is the stories shared through victim and survivor testimonies that offer a way in to not the reality, but the humanity and it is the human voice and the human face that we are moved by and must tether ourselves to. The stories help us put a human face and presence to a world of obscurity, despair and extreme loss and in doing so, they inspire us to turn to the living and to life itself in this world in a new, reinvigorated, faithful way.

Moreover, Rachel Donnelly, (the Holocaust Learning Manager at the Imperial War Museum) expressed the desire to have full length photographs of individuals in the upcoming Holocaust learning centre in London. The importance lying in being able to place these people in a particular time and setting on this earth, thereby conveying a sense of physical presence in history. Again, this illuminated the core intention for our education and our witnessing that imbibes all that we stand for as Ambassadors, scholars and friends of the Holocaust Educational Trust; that we observe and affirm the lives of those who perished. When we declare that we will defend the truth, we not only commit ourselves to Holocaust education and therefore educating others on the atrocities that occurred, but to challenging the Nazi ideology and narrative of dehumanisation and a forceful stripping of life to a bare, animal, pushing on of existence. We commit ourselves to a powerful narrative that seeks to undo and defy dehumanisation and loudly declares that the victims were thinking, feeling, hopeful individuals who lived. This is the truth that we must always defend, Life and its value is the eternal truth that we must and do bear witness to.

This was a message that rang so clearly and movingly in the words of Holocaust survivor and sculptor Maurice Blik and second generation survivor Robert Rinder. Maurice repeatedly emphasised that what he wants to be known for, and what he wants all those who perished and survived to be known for, is their contributions to life, the mark they left behind. This is not something that deserves to be defined purely in terms of the suffering and atrocities they faced, but defined by their relationships, talents, offerings to various worlds of work — contributions that cannot be denied and should not be overwhelmed by the immensities and extremities of the Holocaust. He wanted to be known for how he expressed himself and his relating to the world, his very life to be what defined him — his creativity, artistic talent, his passion. It is the act of living and what was done with that life that should be our overriding concern and what must ultimately compel us in our acts of witness. Once again, the value of the presence of life showed its meaning and power in the focus of the conference. Robert Rinder did not dim this power, rather he intensified it. He spoke of his grandfather’s experiences during the Holocaust, of the friend who clung to him and lived with him through painful adversities. Robert emotionally and eloquently described to us how profound, how important it was for him to be able to observe the face of his grandfather’s friend, to gaze into his eyes, to hear his voice, and shake his hand. What became essential to this encounter on his journey to discover more of what happened to his grandfather, was its personal and human quality. It was in putting a face to a name, a voice to a memory that brought him, and us, closer to that time. It transformed history and knowledge, into an emotionally and deeply felt encounter that could never be denied or lost in the abstractness and far distances of time passed. To reiterate, it was the living, human presence that brought this particular Holocaust memory to life.

Louisa Clein expressed similar sentiments. She shared with the ambassadors the story of how her mother survived the Holocaust as a hidden child and how her grandparents survived through connections with the Dutch resistance. Her grandfather was an architect and eventually built his rescuer’s family home to permanently place his gratitude in the life of his rescuer and physically on this earth. When Louisa visited this house she conveyed to us that it became apparent that the space contained her grandfather’s spirit and she felt close to him and his life. That house came to reside in her soul. The building, its furniture and its atmosphere pulsated with memories and emitted an emotional muscle memory all imbibed with the imprint of Louisa’s grandfather’s life. It was no longer just a building, nor a metonym for Holocaust memory, it became through feeling and stories a vessel of her grandfather himself. In this remarkable and moving story we were once again struck with how powerful these human, personal stories are to our education. Not only that but it became very clear that it is in encountering the lived experiences, the act of living itself that animates Holocaust memory in a human and profound way. It prevents us from viewing the Holocaust as just a pit of overwhelming and unknowable despair, and allows us to look up and into the humanness of the individuals. Inso doing we resist a narrative of the Holocaust that turns it into an almost fictional case led, or rather misled, by imagination, unguided emotion and myth.

With all this in mind, the role of the witness becomes essentially one of active recognition of the value of life not just in history and memory but today — now. When we study the Holocaust and then feel compelled to make bold educational and humanitarian declarations that promise a commitment to the creation of a better, more responsible and empathic future; arguably what we are really expressing and what underlines all these statements is an affirmation of the value and meaning of life itself. Therefore, given all the extensive intellectual, emotional, cognitive, existential challenges and limits to our knowledge of the Holocaust what exactly do we bear witness to, what do we observe? We observe the value of life that requires an urgent, faithful and renewed commitment. Indeed, we first and foremost bear witness to the barbaric horrors of the Holocaust but this becomes part of the process of returning to the preciousness of life that needs protecting and perfecting. What became apparent to me during the conference and in all my studies on the Holocaust is that we must always call for a narrative of life and presence after the Holocaust’s overwhelming narrative of death and absence. To be a witness is to be active in this shifting narrative. It moves us from a point of contemplation, commemoration and mourning to a point of action, education and preservation. As witnesses we become vessels of memories and stories that we must be vigilantly responsible for. It is not something ambassadors should take for granted, nor consider lightly because it is a role that asks that something be done. To refer to and reemphasise the HET’s ethos: knowledge, memory, action. To be a witness is to seek and be active in one’s protection and defence of the truth of what happened in the Holocaust. It is not only a role that refers to the events of the past, it has an essential relationship with the present and with the future.

It is because of this relationship with the present that there is a strange sense of optimism wrapped up in the role of the witness. There is a sort of sombre positivity. We gaze into the Holocaust’s world of horror and inhumanity and we carry those stories to turn our gaze to life today in the hope that we can be and do better. This ‘positivity’ recognises the darkness from which it came but is hopeful and optimistic in its wake. Ambassadors are implored to become vessels for this very hope and act on it, share it, manifest it in all of their acts of witness. The ‘witness’ allows us an opportunity to encounter the Holocaust, to study it and go on in a way that isn’t corruptively painful anymore. It is responsible, inspirational and compassionate and above all else is, I believe, is a compulsion to life and its undeniable value. When we hear survivors bravely share their testimonies we give thanks for them sharing their story while so many cannot, and subsequently we give thanks for not just their survival but their life. Furthermore, when we declare to survivors that we are their witnesses we not only make a general statement of responsibility for history and Holocaust memory; rather, we make an incredibly poignant and personal promise to their very lives. It inspires a relationship or understanding that is based on an offering of oneself to the other, declaring not only ‘I am with you’ but ‘I am for you’ because I have heard your story and I affirm the profundity of your presence.

The HET’s 7th annual Ambassador Conference for me above all else declared a commitment to the affirmation and upholding of the lives of all those who suffered through the Holocaust; a commitment that will be preserved and protected in the role of the witness. However, in light of what was shared by the keynote speakers I’d like to offer an expansion of the theme. Therefore, to the survivors who stood alongside us at the conference, for Lily, Zigi, Susan, Eva, Renee, Joan, Alf and Maurice: I am your witness; for Memory, for Life, for You.

Annabel Pattle, Regional Ambassador Alumnus