Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Holocaust Remembrance Day 2007

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Holocaust Remembrance Day has been observed by different countries on different days over the years. In November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly voted to follow the German and later British examples and set January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and probably most well-known of the Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile, April 16th this year marks Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day as observed in Israel and many Jewish communities (some history of the Yom HaShoah date and observance debate is here). I consider the specific date of observance much less important than the observance itself. While remembering the Holocaust can be an affirmation of cultural identity and solidarity for some, it can also be a simple recognition of shared humanity.

Last year's entry listed a number of Holocaust-related books, films and music. As with last year, I'd welcome any good pieces I haven't mentioned yet, since there are many out there.

This year, there have been a few recent related stories. The Vatican and Israel had a brief conflict over Remembrance Day which has been resolved. German youths continue to study the Holocaust and work to heal old wounds. Meanwhile, Fresh Air recently featured an interesting interview with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the "chief rabbi of Poland — and a New York native. He moved to Warsaw in 1990 to help rebuild Jewish communities there. It was a homecoming of sorts: Schudrich's grandparents emigrated from Poland before World War II."

However, since this is also National Poetry Month, I wanted to highlight some of the work of Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), whose work I mentioned last year. A French political activist and resistance fighter, Delbo was sent to Auschwitz in 1943, luckily surviving and winning her freedom in 1945. Delbo was not Jewish, and the Holocaust obviously took the most deadly toll on Jewish communities, but the Nazis also imprisoned and killed homosexuals, the Roma (more commonly known as gypsies), Slavic peoples, the mentally and physically disabled, and of course political activists and intellectuals.

As mentioned last year, Hilda Schiff has compiled an entire anthology of Holocaust Poetry, while Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After compiles three of her earlier works, and combines autobiography with poetry. Some excerpts:

O you who know
did you know that hunger makes the eyes sparkle that thirst dims them
O you who know
did you know that you can see your mother dead
and not shed a tear
O you who know
did you know that a day is longer than a year
a minute longer than a lifetime
O you who know
did you know that legs are more vulnerable than eyes
nerves harder than bones
the heart firmer than steel
Did you know that the stones of the road do not weep
that there is only one word for dread
one for anguish
Did you know that suffering is limitless
that horror cannot be circumscribed
Did you know this
You who know.


"You're French?"
"So am I."
She has no F on her chest. A star.
"From where?"
"You've been here a long time?"
"Five weeks."
"I've been here sixteen days."
"That's already a long time, I know."
"Five weeks... How can it be?"
"Just like this."
"And you think we can survive this?"
She is begging.
"We've got to try."
"For you perhaps there's hope, but for us..."
She points to my striped jacket and then to her coat, a coat much too big, much too dirty, much too tattered.
"Oh, come on, it's the same odds for both of us."
"For us, there's no hope."
She gestures with her hand, mimics rising smoke.
"We've got to keep up our courage."
"Why bother... Why keep on struggling when all of us are to..."
The gesture of her hand completes the sentence. Rising smoke.
"No, we've got to keep on struggling."
"How can we hope to get out of her." How will anyone ever get out of here. It would be better to throw ourselves on the barbed wire immediately."
What can one say to her? She's small, frail. And I can't even convince myself.
All argument is senseless. I'm struggling against my reason. One struggles against all reason.
The chimney smokes. The sky is low. Smoke sweeps across the camp weighing upon us and enveloping us with the odor of burning flesh.

My mother
she was hands, a face
They made our mothers strip in front of us

Here mothers are no longer mothers to their children.

It's this denial of someone else's humanity, the petty humiliations and systemic stripping of identity to make murder more palatable that's always struck me the most. Given Rwanda, Sudan and other atrocities, I've heard it said that "never again" really seems to mean, "Never again will German Nazis kill Jews in the 1940s." That may be, but it's hard to see no value in The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research and these United Nations statements of commitment:

1. We recognise that the Holocaust shook the foundations of modern civilisation. Its unprecedented character and horror will always hold universal meaning.

2. We believe the Holocaust must have a permanent place in our nation's collective memory. We honour the survivors still with us, and reaffirm our shared goals of mutual understanding and justice.

3. We must make sure that future generations understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences. We vow to remember the victims of Nazi persecution and of all genocide.

4. We value the sacrifices of those who have risked their lives to protect or rescue victims, as a touchstone of the human capacity for good in the face of evil.

5. We recognise that humanity is still scarred by the belief that race, religion, disability or sexuality make some people's lives worth less than others'. Genocide, antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination still continue. We have a shared responsibility to fight these evils.

6. We pledge to strengthen our efforts to promote education and research about the Holocaust and other genocide. We will do our utmost to make sure that the lessons of such events are fully learnt.

7. We will continue to encourage Holocaust remembrance by holding an annual Holocaust Memorial Day. We condemn the evils of prejudice, discrimination and racism. We value a free, tolerant, and democratic society.

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