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Auschwitz revisited?

By ucyow3c, on 5 June 2014

pencil-iconWritten by Phil Leask, Honorary Research Associate in UCL SELCS (UCL German)

The Auschwitz story – murder on a vast scale, planned, programmed, administered and executed by the Nazis in accordance with an ideology – is too terrible, requiring only homage, beyond the bounds of revisiting, reinterpreting and coolly analysing.

auschwitz awkward


Or is it?

That was the central question in the UCL Festival of the Arts event Awkward approaches to Auschwitz on 29 June. Three years into their major project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Reverberations of War group from the School of European Languages, Culture and Society revisited Auschwitz. Literally.

They went there and looked, took photos, checked distances, traced the patterns of movement of those doing the killing and those taken to be killed, roamed around the vast complex beyond where the tourists go, located factories and factory sites where slave labour had been used and people had been worked to death, and tried to see it both as it had been and in its present-day context.

Then came the awkward questions …

Why is it Auschwitz, above all, that is remembered, when four fifths of the Nazis’ victims were murdered at other camps? How did ‘Auschwitz’ emerge as shorthand for the whole Nazi system of extermination?

Who were the ‘real’ perpetrators: those who gave the orders, or the administrators who processed the papers, orders, instructions, regulations and protocols without which the murders could not have taken place?

Who were the ‘real’ victims of the Holocaust? Just those who were murdered? Can we add to that, those who survived the camps? Or those who were driven into exile or forced to live underground, precariously hidden by others? Or homosexuals and other ‘undesirables’ who survived the camps only to find themselves ostracised and isolated, with no support networks, after the war?

Who determines what memories or images of Auschwitz are acceptable? What are the purposes – social, political, or economic – behind their decisions? What pressures have there been on survivors to comply with particular interpretations of Auschwitz, to present themselves in France, for instance, as citizens of France rather than as persecuted Jews or communists; or in the former German Democratic Republic as anti-fascist resistance heroes, ahead of any other identity?

And how can anyone be allowed to associate Auschwitz with beauty, like the writer Otto Dov Kulka, looking back at his time there as an eleven-year-old boy? Is it acceptable that he should talk of a moment when, with death the one constant in his life, he looked up into a blue sky – high up in it, American bombers – and saw around him blue hills and a landscape that he felt was beautiful and that would forever remain as a “touchstone of beauty”, for him?

With these awkward questions in the open and an extensive reminder of the context and history of Auschwitz from Professor Mary Fulbrook and Dr Julia Wagner (UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society [SELCS]), the event unfolded, giving us not answers but, one might say, further provocations, further questions.

How, asked Dr Christiane Wienand (SELCS), could a large cross have been erected, apparently without thought for its implications, on a site where the vast majority of the victims were Jews rather than Christians? The cross – and later crosses, one for a Papal visit – became a source not only of controversy but also of serious tension, when some of those wishing to use the Christian symbol to emphasise how Poles had suffered in Auschwitz promoted radical right-wing ideas and made anti-semitic statements in the late 1990s.

How should Auschwitz be managed as a site of mass tourism? Julia Wagner asked, quoting advertisements for hen and stag weekends in Cracow that listed Auschwitz as one popular attraction among others that could be visited.

Should there be a code of conduct for visits to Auschwitz? How is it possible to cope with the variety of motives for such visits, or to persuade people – even if it were desirable – that they have a moral obligation to draw lessons from their visit? Should they be allowed to laugh or tell jokes, to enjoy themselves?

Dr Stephanie Bird (SELCS) followed this up by looking at literature describing experiences in Auschwitz, in particular the novels of the Hungarian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize, Imre Kertész, himself an Auschwitz survivor. She – and perhaps Kertész – took the view that it would probably not work as art to write a comedy about such experiences, but that a comic element, as one element in a novel, could be an effective way of getting us to look differently at what has been talked about so many times.

After all, she said, art is not about showing respect, but its impact will depend on the quality of the creation. A publisher Kertész approached was not so happy about this, declaring that a writer had to present his material in a way which required the reader to experience horror. Kertész himself allows a character to describe a moment that does shock the reader, a moment of nostalgia for the camp, a memory of happiness there. Is it possible, we ask ourselves, to be homesick for Auschwitz?

Alex Hills (SELCS) wrestled with the thinking of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose writings on Auschwitz challenge the reader to see the abject condition of the prisoners as the consequence of a deliberate attempt to impose upon them the status of the inhuman, or no longer human being.

One of the most touching moments of the whole event came when Alex Hills, responding to a question about Lacan and abjection, recounted the story of a dog coming to the fence in Auschwitz, seeing the prisoners, not noticing their terrible condition but recognising in them human beings with whom it wanted to play: a Levinas moment of ‘looking into the face of the other.’

Gaelle Fisher’s (SELCS) concern was the testimony of survivors: its purpose, the shape it should take, the expectations that were imposed on its creators. As with so many of the questions raised in the session, it was clear that answers would change over time, and that where the testimony was published, or perhaps which audience it was published for, would always be significant.

Was it right, for instance, to describe the lice in the rabbi’s beard shortly after the war? No, according to a West German editor of the same period; it would only confirm to people what they had been told for so long in Nazi propaganda about the Jews. But what if the testimony was written by a Jew wanting to describe the conditions in all their awfulness at that time, when lice were common whether you were Jewish or not? Whose testimony is it, after all?

And so we were left with many questions. We were asked – we were required – to think, and it was one of the excellent aspects of this event that we were offered no easy answers.

Yes, it was awkward, and that was how it needed to be and how, it seems to me, Auschwitz and all that it stands for should remain – open to our questioning, to our reinterpretation.

To keep us thinking as we left, there was one last question: will Auschwitz and the Holocaust ever become just another chapter in history, like the Magna Carta or the Battle of Waterloo?

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