ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at www.70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.
This is the final week of our 70 Voices commemorative project and on this our final podcast episode we are going to look at the issue of memory and legacy. For the next 25 minutes, or so, we will consider the very murky topic of how the world has sought to make sense of the events of the Holocaust for the past 70 years. To help me do that I am joined, once again, on the line from Jerusalem by Jeremy Leigh from Hebrew Union College. Jeremy you have been a very popular guest on 70 Voices podcast thus far so it seemed only fitting that we should have you on for our final episode, thank you for joining us.
Theodor Adorno once said that there can be “no poetry after Auschwitz”. Before we came on air you and I were discussing the best way to kick off this topic and you had a great suggestion and that is a poem by Dan Pagis. What can you tell us about that?
JEREMY LEIGH: I will read the poem, it is a very short six-line poem. I will read it in the Hebrew and the English because it was written in Hebrew and I will explain a little bit of the variation. But, maybe just to say Dan Pagis was from Bukovina and he was a Holocaust survivor, after the war he moved to Israel and I think there is hardly an Israeli school child who goes through school without at some point learning the poem. I thought it would be interesting because in a way it helps frame the introduction to what it is that we are talking about. The poem is called 'Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car' and it reads in English
here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I
and a monument of marble
and it is left hanging. In Hebrew it reads,
כאן במשלוח הזה
עם הבל בני
אם תראו את בני הגדול
קין בן אדם
תגידו לו שאני
I will explain why I think it is an interesting starting point. He may have imagined a voice coming from a sealed railway-car in the middle of the Holocaust and he tries to imagine what those voices sound like. He brings in the foundation of humanity of this first family in which one quarter of the family murders another quarter of the family – the Biblical family of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, and Cain kills Abel. Pagis introduces this question which is, what am I saying? What is it that somebody in the middle of this can say to the world outside? In the poem, it seems she [Eve] is addressing the outside world and she says “I’m here with Abel, I‘m here with the victim; if you see my other son who is the perpetrator” – then she says ‘Cain ben Adam’: in Hebrew ‘ben Adam’ could mean ‘the son of Adam’ or ‘the son of a man’ but it usually has the connotation of being a good person, a ben Adam, a Mensch as you would say in Yiddish; a decent person, a moral person. So she is managing to identify all the characters of being part of the same family. The perpetrator, the victim, also the bystander, the person listening, are all identified and then we come to this momentous conclusion in three words “tell him I” and the poem finishes.
AM: Or does it finish? Some interpretations of the poem would say that the unfinished sentence suggests you’re meant to start it all over again.
JL: Of course, and thus the debate begins and many a library shelf is filled with analysis of the poem. If it starts again, as you just suggested Alex, then it is cyclical. Abel is always being killed and Cain is always perpetrating another murder, and that is a very bleak way of memorialising the Holocaust, to say that we assume that the voice tells us that it will always keep going, that there is no respite.
But then there are, of course, other possibilities. Clearly, for me the one that most prompts inclusion is this invitation to the reader or to the listener to finish the poem. We assume either the car arrived in some sort of symbolic way or maybe Eve just ran out of words and because she, as the mother who witnesses the murder of her son by her other son, she doesn’t have any words left, maybe that take you a little bit back to Ardono. The invitation to all of us to finish the poem, what is it that we want her to say? What do we think should be the abiding message, legacy, memory of completing it? And I think one can hear and can read many interpretations; what do we want to say in the light of the knowledge that the Holocaust took place and that it took place in our world carried out by human beings who look remarkably like ourselves? Even to the point that the perpetrators in some part of their lives were decent people, came from democratic societies, and so on.
I know that some people would say, well tell him I forgive him because he is my son and I love him. I don’t know whether I fell the same compulsion to forgive I am not sure I have a possibility to forgive. There are people who seek out in the Holocaust some opportunity to move on by forgiving. Others say no, tell him I will keep talking, or I will bear witness, or I will give testimony, or tell him that I can’t talk to him any longer or whatever else. So in other words we are faced with this question of, we know we want to pass on this memory of this terrible event from one generation to the next, we are 70 years on from the liberation, what is it that we are saying now that in a way if we think honestly probably is likely to be different to some of the things that were said 70 years ago. When people were liberated form the camps they struggled to find their voice and yet they spoke in many different ways.
I did want to offer one interesting point, it would seem intriguing whether Dan Pagis would have included it. There were a group of survivors, probably the first organised group of survivors to speak with a collective voice. They took a name for themselves from the Bible, the idea of the surviving remnants, in Hebrew the Sheerit Hapleitah, and they were mainly survivors who were in the DP camps, Displaced Persons camps, in the American and British zones in 1945-46. They said we have witnessed this incredible awful event but we as witnesses have to speak about it and therefore we have a way of framing the conversation or debate for future generations. Scholars have come back to look at what really did the surviving remnant, this first voice of survivors, actually say. One of the most surprising things comes from one of the leaders, a man by the name of Shmuel Greengauz who says “we have to leave Europe, because Europe has betrayed itself in the very essence of being European”. I raise it because in a way I take from it something both dark and depressing but also something very optimistic. What he was trying to say was all the best values of the Enlightenment and liberalism that modern European history had created, those things remained intact – in other words our world the memory that we are building contains within it a world that is damaged but not broken, but we can’t do it here because we, the people who experienced it, have to go somewhere else and we will rebuild it somewhere else.
AM: It’s actually quite optimistic.
JL: That optimism is, of course, very powerful. Can I just say the other parallel is another voice from that time, also from 1945, from one of the leaders of the resistance, actually one of the partisans from the forests of north-eastern Europe, Abba Kovner, who came from Vilna. He gave a speech in 1945 to a group of other fighters, mainly Jewish soldiers who had fought with Allied forces – and he have this recorded and it is a document that is freely available – and he said “the knife rising again in a free Europe”. In other words he was taking the opposite view that actually when we imagine the future, we see that once it was possible, it was possible to do it again, we are still not safe and we have to be on our guard.
AM: The reactions that you describe of those survivors in the period immediately following the end of the war offers us, I suppose, one way of trying to complete that unfinished sentence in the Dan Pagis poem. And really trying to complete that sentence, trying to make sense of what is was that took place in our world during the events of the Holocaust, is something that we have been trying to do for the past several generations since the end of the war and that brings us right up-to-date. Next week is Yom HaShoah a day of commemoration for the Holocaust in Israel where you are located and in many other countries. Can you talk to us a little bit about Yom HaShoah and about how events like this help us to attempt to complete that unfinished sentence from the Dan Pagis poem, to try and make sense today of the events of the Holocaust.
JL: Absolutely. It is a national memorial day. The country closes down; there is no TV, the shops are closed, it really is a sense of national mourning. The day itself which was chosen, again it was very much about building a living memorial in time as well as space. Which was that is sandwiched exactly halfway in time between the end of the festival of Passover, which is a festival which celebrates the exodus from slavery or the liberation from slavery in Biblical times for the Jewish people, and that finishes the week before, and the week following is National Independence day when we celebrate having achieved national sovereignty or to be an independent country. And therefore in the middle you put this very dark moment of remembering the victims of the Holocaust.
I think the most profound enduring and clearly by no means straightforward – one does not have to try very hard to see why this is controversial or complex – but in a way the central piece of Israeli Holocaust memory, which I think many Jews around the world will also connect to, is this sense that something has changed: we remember the Holocaust but now we have a country which has a seat at the United Nations, it has an army which can protect us, that we will never be victims again, certainly not in the same way, and that there is some drawing comfort from the fact that, even though we would wish that this had never happened, now the feeling that you have power and that you can look after yourself is an important statement. If you were to turn it around, who really wants to be a people in the world who have been left vulnerable and exposed and you have no means for survival or rather you are always relying on other people to look after you. So I think that is the central piece that probably the largest number of Jews in the world [feel], as people I guess who feel a direct inheritance of this legacy of Holocaust, as primary victims, that is probably the most profound.
And, of course, what I want to say is that memory is very elusive. it is very flexible, it is very elastic. Memory works according to who is doing the memory so an Israeli memory of the Holocaust, of course, will be quite different to the way that it is, say, in Germany obviously or Poland or Lithuania or Hungry and, of course, the United Kingdom. You start the memorialising by really generating or reflecting your own core identity. And because of that what we realise then is that memory is both elastic but it is also controversial – no one really agrees on what the legacy should be or how we frame the memory.
AM: Our listeners who have been following along with the 70 Voices app will have read yesterday’s final extract, a very powerful reading from Elsa Binder who asked the simple one word question, ‘Why?’ It is such a universal question that seems to resonate through the ages when we think of the events of the Holocaust. But what you are saying is that in different cultures, in different societies, in different countries the way that people are likely to answer that question, to approach answering that question, is likely to differ.
JL: That’s right. It’s quite a thick controversy right at the heart of Europe. There is actually a battle of memory going on. A number of countries with complicated Holocaust pasts tried to present a declaration, known as the Prague Declaration, which tried to promote what was called double genocide: which was that there was two genocides that took place in the twentieth century, one by the Nazis and one by the Soviets.
A primary country, for instance, which I mentioned before, would be Lithuania. That happens for a number of reasons. One would like to think that it is based on an interesting historical analysis of simply two events. The problem is they’re actually not the same and it is quite difficult to put them together. I think in the case of Lithuania there is a feeling that because so many Lithuanians were involved in collaborating with the Nazis and that Jewish partisans, who were trying to protect themselves, were attacking Lithuanian ultra-far right nationalists, people [who] became the victims of the Soviets later on, so the perpetrators then become the victims. And because the victims are the people that we commemorate, we then have to attack their perpetrators so you end up in this strange façade – the bizarre situation that we had a number of years ago where the Lithuanian government sent out arrest warrants to arrest former Jewish partisans who were simply themselves victims of the Holocaust.
So this contested memory in places where actually many of the bitter political controversies of the time are very much still alive, that is also part of the memory. As a result you can go to Lithuania and you can visit death camps or places of mass destruction, but you can certainly see that the cement, as it were, has not hardened yet, it is still quite soft as to what acts as memorial, I am using figurative language here, but what the memorial or the memory actually looks like and in no way, shape or form is it straightforward. An activist there Professor Dovid Katz, formally of the Vilnius State University, in Yiddish has a whole project called defending history in which he is very much trying to shed light on the fact that there is complex, in a way quite harsh, reading of Holocaust memory in Lithuania. That is different from country to country.
AM: Sometimes in classrooms, in the work that we do here in the UK, I like to do an activity where is ask people to just write down privately on a scrap of paper what they think the lessons of the Holocaust are. Everyone will nod sagely as though we are all surely in agreement of what these lessons are but inevitably there will be like twenty different responses to this question. Then you take that idea and extend it not just to one classroom in Britain but to millions of people in lots of different cultures and countries across Europe and the different relationships that they have. It is really a complicated business trying to say what is it that we take away from the Holocaust? To what extent is what we want to say about the Holocaust today quite universal? Does it say something about mankind? Or to what extent is it quite specific about specific events that took place at a specific time in history?
JL: I would probably even go back one stage and say that we are actually at a more fundamental question about how people extract meaning or how people manage to make statements that have exclamation marks at the end, with the sense that by implication by saying this is a truth, it’s a truth for me or it is an objective truth. In other words, are there objective messages or memories that need to be firm? Everybody will have an opinion but is an opinion the same as a lesson or a memory? So yes individuals can draw individual lessons but I guess is there a right or a wrong here?
I’m not sure I want to plough directly into the heart of that but rather maybe just to problematise it a little more. I would say what tends to happen, for better or for worse, [is] most what are called lessons very often aren’t lessons – they are just things that we previously believed in and we use the Holocaust to expand or to magnify them. [For example,] I already believe that humans are murderous; I look at the Holocaust and I see the best example there is. I fundamentally believe that humans have a right to life and are good and decent, or whatever else. So there is a question about how objective we can be.
But then, within that, I think there are certain tendencies and certainly I would like to pick out what might be one or two of them to share because, whilst I agree with some, there are some problems involved as well. One, if we are looking as a project such as this which seeks to memorialise a certain moment in time, 70 years on, there is you can see a certain shift or a drift in the way in which people talk about the Holocaust. The one I was thinking of particularly is the rush to draw very, very universalist conclusions – that the legacy or the message is about the need to protect all people from victimisation and to stand up against racism and discrimination. Of course, I am not in any way suggesting that is not an important message, but I am not sure that you need the Holocaust to be able to prove that; in other words, I believe that already. What tends to happen when you put that together with the Holocaust is that you end up with a mystification: at some point actually you almost blur and you are not looking at the Holocaust anymore; you are just looking at a very bad example of something that goes on all the way through time. So, whilst it is not incorrect to say that – I would agree and subscribe to that view entirely – I am not sure that it is a direct lesson.
I saw an interview just the other day with Dame Helen Mirren, who has performed the leading role in this film Woman in Gold about art restitution and she was asked the question whether she saw the importance of the film to do with the rising tide of antisemitism in Europe at the moment and the ongoing victimisation of Jews in certain specific circumstances. Her response I found frustrating, because she said, of course this can happen at any time to all people. And I wanted to say, well actually, that’s not very helpful, because the Holocaust happened in Germany, the perpetrators were German, they were Austrian, there were collaborators from other countries. It didn’t happen in Africa, it didn’t happen in Asia and the victims were Jews and the victims were not people from Australia or Papua New Guinea. There is a specific character to what happened and building a memorial means having to do a little bit of extra work to be quite accurate. This happened in the 1930s and 1940s; it didn’t happen in the earlier period – it’s a twentieth century phenomenon. We need to be very accurate and then, having been accurate and laid the basis of the good solid knowledge in context, then we can start to draw broader more universal conclusions.
AM: That’s very interesting. The Holocaust scholar and historian Yehuda Bauer, who I think we have mentioned on previous podcasts, has said that one way of looking at the lessons that we should take away from the Holocaust are, to paraphrase, something along the lines of: don’t become a victim, don’t become a bystander, don’t become a perpetrator. Is that something that you would agree with?
JL: Absolutely. It is amazing how somebody who writes so many books and is so profound in so many areas manages to nail it down in so short memorable nugget of those three lines. Actually when you unpack it, it is a little bit more complicated. To make sure that I am not a victim: how do I ensure that I am not a victim? There is something, as I said, empowering about the sense of having a different position in history and seeing that all people can be in control of their own destiny in some way. One looks at all the vulnerable groups there are in the world at the moment, of which there are many, to ensure that using this as the starting point for understanding that people should never be left in the position where they are not able to control their own destiny. Similarly the idea that in many situations, different from that time, we can all observe all the terrible things that go on in the world as well as all the good things. To be a bystander is a very difficult position to be in, and in a way we have less excuses than ever before. Not to be a perpetrator I think speaks for itself.
I think what you have illustrated with that quote is that this is an abiding, all-round, 360 degree, multidimensional kind of project. Memory, which is our core phrase, is a flexible idea. I remember something now differently to the way that I remembered it maybe twenty years ago. And I may remember it differently from other people. So acknowledging all of that, for this to have some teeth, for it to have actually some usefulness to collective groups to societies, is to really try and work hard on building projects that really try and dig deeply into all of those. I am reminded actually of a thinker or a survivor, a theologian, a philosopher Emil Fackenheim, whose philosophy – I’m not sure I agree with all of it – but at the heart of one part he talks about the idea of a commanding voice of Auschwitz. That coming out of this awful place comes the commandment also to survive; that we shouldn’t give Hitler a posthumous victory, we must continue to believe in things. Now you don’t need the Holocaust to do that, but since the Holocaust has happened, one most important legacy or imperative of memory is to make sure that we survive and that we keep our values intact and that we are dedicated both to the past and also to the future and then making sure that we don’t fit into any of those roles which Yehuda Bauer just mentioned.
AM: Jeremy Leigh from Hebrew Union College and author of Jewish Journeys, thank you very much for this fascinating discussion about memory and legacy and thank you for being a part of this 70 Voices commemorative project on several podcasts. To our listeners: this is our final 70 Voices podcast but this idea of digital commemoration has really taken on a life of its own and I encourage you to stay tuned for some news in the very near future of about how this project is going to continue in other ways and of course our podcast series continues on our website het.org.uk. I would be very eager to hear from our listeners on Twitter and other social media platforms about how you have found this 70 Voices commemorative project. Which of the 70 Voices resonated with you the most? Which do you keep thinking about the most? Please do continue to share your thoughts on Twitter we are on @HolocaustUK and use the #70Voices and I look forward to continuing these fascinating conversations there with you our listeners. Thank you.
Read more by Jeremy Leigh: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jeremy-Leigh/e/B0034Q77C6/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1