(2) Auschwitz, 60 years on: “Witnesses for the witnesses”

January 27, 2005

This is the second of a three-part email. For the introductory note and contents list, please see the first email of this series, titled (1) Auschwitz, 60 years on: "My father was no longer there".

This dispatch contains five articles published to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

-- Tom Gross


Witnesses for the witnesses
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
International Herald Tribune
January 27, 2005


When I teach my courses on the history of the Holocaust, I have learned that for the students the "highlight" is when they hear about the Holocaust in the first person singular - from a survivor, particularly a survivor of Auschwitz or one of the other camps. However, the number of survivors I can call on to speak to my students is rapidly diminishing.

The commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is being held on Thursday, is the last commemoration (they are held every 10 years) at which a significant number of survivors of the camp will be present. I will be there, not as a survivor or a child of survivors - I am neither - but as a historian of this place and the other attendant horrors of that which has become known as the Holocaust.

On some level, this reflects the passing of the memory torch from the survivors to historians and scholars. I already witnessed the beginning of this process during my libel trial in London in 2000, when I was forced to defend myself against a Holocaust denier, David Irving. Irving had called the Holocaust a "legend," denied that gas chambers were used to systematically kill Jews, and removed all mention of the Holocaust from one his books because, he said, "if something didn't happen, then you don't even dignify it with a footnote."

Nonetheless, he sued me for libel for having called him a denier. My legal team decided not to call survivors as witnesses. Irving was acting as his own lawyer, and they feared that his only objective would be to humiliate and confuse these elderly people. More important, they did not think we needed witnesses of fact to prove that the Holocaust happened.

We relied instead, on a stellar team of historians and specialists. They became, in the words of the poet Paul Celan, the "witnesses for the witnesses."

This phrase took on life for me one day when an elderly woman broke through a phalanx of reporters who were trying to ask me questions. She rolled up her sleeve, pointed at the number on her arm and declared, "You are fighting for us." On other occasions survivors would wait in the hallway outside the courtroom and press into my hands pieces of paper with the names of their relatives on them. "This is the evidence," they would tell me.

Ultimately we won a unequivocal victory with the judge declaring it "incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier." The judge's choice of words to describe Irving's writings about the Holocaust were unambiguous: "distorts," "perverts," "unjustified," "travesty" and "unreal."

Deniers like Irving have made Auschwitz the focus of their attacks because it is the primary symbol of the Holocaust. But they have made few significant inroads. Holocaust denial is hardly a clear and present danger. But deniers are sure to try to ply their wares even more energetically when there is no one left to say: "This is my story. This is what happened to me."

Then it will be up to those who study Auschwitz and all the other elements of the Holocaust to help us know, beyond any doubt, what happened in these places. Holocaust historians, as well as those of other genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Sudan, bear a particular responsibility to be not just meticulous and exacting historians, but "witnesses for the witnesses."

It is a heavy burden, but it can be done.



Dancing on the volcano
By Dominique Moïsi
International Herald Tribune
January 27, 2005


My father was not liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, in Auschwitz, but on May 8, in a small camp in Bavaria, where he landed after having survived the ordeal of the death march the Nazis ordered as Russian soldiers advanced toward the camp. He was 42.

As a very young child I learned to decipher numbers by reading the Auschwitz tattoo - 159721 - indelibly etched on his left forearm. This number, I now realize, profoundly modified my relationship to life, providing me with values and an identity as the son of a deportee that have only grown stronger with the passage of time.

There are many ways of living as the child of a "survivor." In my case, being born with historical tragedy as an inheritance has brought a mixture of vulnerability and strength. It has meant keeping a distance from institutions, but above all engaging in a deep and never-ending commitment to Europe.

Being the son of a deportee means having come to life before one's biological birth. I was born after the war, but was I not really born amid the evil and horror of history on that April day in 1943 in Nice when my father, denounced as a Jew by a Frenchman, was seized by the Gestapo and escorted by French gendarmes to Drancy, before the "great journey" to Auschwitz?

Nearly 60 years have gone by, and I still carry that betrayal within me like a wound. Stained by that original sin, my love for France has only been stronger and more complex, more intense and more tortured, like that of a suitor who always expects to be rejected and has somehow to prepare himself for such a moment. "Do you love me, do you really love me?" Mozart continually asked his entourage. Am I not always tempted to put this question to my own country?

France however, did not only wound me through the body and the spirit of my father. The same day he was arrested, my mother was immediately warned and led into hiding, and hence saved, by members of a French Catholic resistance network. So my parents' story stands as a perfect summary, an emblematic condensation of the complexity of a tragic period in our history. The sin and the redemption took place simultaneously. A Frenchman betrayed my father, others saved my mother.

For the son of a deportee, peace of mind, like health, can only be regarded as a transitory phase, prefiguring nothing positive. Being the son of a deportee means carrying deep within a permanent feeling of dancing on a volcano. But it also means inheriting an inner strength and a great capacity for resistance. It means confronting daily challenges unburned, as though coated with Teflon, at times even to one's own amazement. A father's relentless struggle to survive is always an incentive to put in perspective and thus transcend any trial you may face. It also protects you from the temptation of comparing the legitimate worries of the present with the tragedies of the past.

The mix of vulnerability and strength that I inherited has led me to keep an ever greater distance from institutions, particularly from the most central of all, the State. My respectful but mistrustful remove from the State is, of course, a reaction against those gendarmes who became accomplices by carrying out the monstrous orders of the Nazi occupier.

My natural distancing from the classic games of power, social rank, honors and decorations arises from a fundamental skepticism about a political institution that could have failed so radically to accomplish its most essential tasks: the protection of its own citizens and their equal treatment, whatever their religious or social origins.

This is why I spontaneously contrast the judgment of the State with that of God and Men. Born with the inheritance of injustice, am I not better armed than any authority to define what seems "just" or not? Authority itself seems suspect to me, authority that can act unjustly, in the name of reasons of State that too often serve as a comfortable excuse for every kind of moral laziness and laxness. This feeling of historical fragility and this distance from the authority of the State are accompanied by a spontaneous mixture of empathy and activism in response to the sufferings and injustices in the world. This compassion is based on that fact that even though I have not personally known war, violence, humiliation, discrimination fear or hunger, I can visualize and internalize the sufferings of others through the experiences of my father, whether they be Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars or Palestinians.

Being the son of a deportee can lead to historical pessimism or even nihilism. But in my case the opposite was true. Encouraged by my father's humanism and my mother's religious faith, I was driven by my origins to work for the cause of reconciliation, most of all between France and Germany.

My indirect inheritance of Auschwitz did not lead me to fall out of love with France, but to fall in love with Europe. And this European choice received my father's moral support. Had he forgiven the Germans? Nothing is less certain. But like Simone Veil, he saw in the construction of Europe the best way of surpassing the tragedy of the past.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I asked for my father's blessing before writing that the event represented for me the reconciliation of my three identities, French, European and Jewish. He gave it without hesitation. After all, had he not put an end, after Charles de Gaulle's speech at Ludwigsburg in 1962, to the ban on German products that had ruled our family life?

On Thursday, I will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with a complex mix of emotions: immense tenderness for my father; the absence of illusions about human nature; the hope that this commemoration serves as a reminder and a warning for present and future generations. And with a commitment to Europe that is firmer than ever before. This ceremony expresses Europe's permanent struggle against its demons. Today, in spite of everything, the victory is fragile, certainly reversible, but nonetheless real.

(Dominique Moïsi is a special adviser to the French Institute of International Relations. This article was translated from the French by the IHT.)



The legacy of Auschwitz
By Samuel Pisar
January 27, 2005


Sixty years ago today the Russians liberated Auschwitz, as the Americans approached Dachau. The Allied advance revealed to a stunned world the horrors of the greatest catastrophe ever to befall our civilization. For a survivor of both death factories, where Hitler's gruesome reality eclipsed Dante's imaginary inferno, being alive and well so many years later feels unreal.

When the liquidation of the ghetto in Bialystok, Poland, began in August 1943, only three members of our family were still alive: my mother, my little sister and I, age 13. Father had already been executed by the Gestapo. Mother told me to put on long pants, hoping I would look more like a man, capable of slave labor. "And you, and Frieda?" I asked. She didn't answer. She knew that their fate was sealed, but she desperately wanted to give me a chance to live, if only one in a million.

As they were chased, with the other women, the children, the old and the sick, toward the waiting cattle cars, I could not take my eyes off them. Little Frieda held my mother with one hand, and with the other her favorite doll. They looked at me too, before disappearing from my life forever.

Their train went directly to the hell of Auschwitz-Birkenau; mine to the no lesser hell of Majdanek. Months later, I also landed in Auschwitz, still hoping, naively, to find their trace. When the SS guards, with their dogs and whips, unsealed our cattle car, many of my comrades were already dead from hunger, thirst and lack of air. At the central ramp, surrounded by electrically charged barbed wire, we were ordered to strip naked and file past the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. The "angel of death" performed on us his ritual "selection": those to die immediately to the right; those fit for hard labor or atrocious medical experiments, to the left.

In the background there was music. Near the central gate of the camp - with its sinister slogan "Work Brings Freedom" - and dressed in striped prison rags like mine sat one of the most remarkable orchestras ever assembled. It was made up of virtuosos from Warsaw and Paris, Kiev and Amsterdam, Rome and Budapest. To accompany the selections, hanging and shootings, while the gas chambers and crematoria belched smoke and fire, these gentle musicians were forced to play Bach, Schubert and Mozart, interspersed with military marches to the glory of the Fuhrer.

In the summer of 1944, the Third Reich was on the verge of collapse, yet the tyrants in Berlin found no higher priority than to accelerate the "final solution." The death toll in the gas chambers now reached unprecedented levels. My labor commando was assigned to remove garbage from convoys arriving at a ramp near the crematoria. From there I observed the peak of human extermination and heard the blood-curdling cries of innocent men, women and children as they were herded into the gas chambers. Once the doors were locked, they had only three minutes to live, yet they found enough strength to dig their fingernails into the walls and scratch in the words: "Never Forget."

Have we already forgotten?

I also witnessed an extraordinary act of heroism. The Sonderkommando - composed of inmates coerced to dispose of the victims' bodies - attacked their SS guards, threw them into the furnaces, put fire to buildings and escaped. They were rapidly captured and executed, but their courage reanimated my will to live.

As the Russians and Americans advanced, those of us still able to work were evacuated deep into Germany. My own misery continued at Dachau, with the same back-breaking slave labor, bitter cold, hallucinating hunger and sadistic punishment as at Auschwitz. During a final death march, while our column was being strafed by Allied planes that mistook us for Wehrmacht troops and our SS guards hit the dust, their machine guns blazing in all directions, I and some others made a break for the forest. A few weeks later, an armored battalion of GIs brought me the gift of life and freedom. I had just turned 16.

In the autumn of their lives, the remaining survivors of Auschwitz feel a visceral need to transmit to new generations the memory of what we have experienced in our flesh and our souls, to warn our children that today's spreading intolerance, hatred, fanaticism and violence can destroy their world as they once destroyed ours, that powerful alert systems must be built not only against the fury of nature - a tsunami or hurricane or eruption - but also against the folly of man. Because we know from bitter experience that the human animal is capable of the worst, as of the best, of madness as of genius, that the unthinkable, the unimaginable, remains possible.

In the wake of so many recent disasters and tragedies, a tide of compassion and solidarity for the victims, a yearning for peace, democracy and freedom, seem to be rising on all continents. It is far too early to evaluate their potential. Mankind, divided and confused, still hesitates, vacillates, like a sleepwalker on the edge of an abyss. But the irrevocable has not yet happened, our chances are still intact. Pray that we learn how to seize them.

(The writer is an international lawyer in Paris, New York and London, and the author of "Of Blood and Hope.")



Six million reasons why the world must never forget
By Laurence Rees
January 27, 2005


Today, in a desolate snow-covered courtyard in Poland, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will join politicians from across the globe to remember the Holocaust. One of the worst crimes in history is best understood through the prism of one physical place, the place where they will stand, heads bowed: Auschwitz.

For the past three years, my BBC production team and I have travelled thousands of miles and recorded hundreds of hours of interviews in an attempt to explain how this former Polish army barracks became synonymous with the careful, clinical evil that men do. On this, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is crucial we remember the victims: six million in total, of which Auschwitz contributed 1,100,000 - or 1,250 men, women and children for every word in this article.

But it is also important to try to understand how people could perpetrate such acts. Unlike the history of anti-Semitism, Auschwitz has one certain beginning (the first Polish prisoners arrived on 14 June, 1940), and, unlike the history of genocide, it has one definite end (the camp was liberated on 27 January, 1945).

In between those dates, Auschwitz had a complex and surprising history that, in many ways, mirrored the intricacies of Nazi racial and ethnic policy. It was never conceived as a camp to kill Jews, it was never solely concerned with the "Final Solution" - though that came to dominate the place - and it was always physically changing, often in response to the constant shifts in fortunes of the German war effort elsewhere. Auschwitz, through its destructive dynamism, was the physical embodiment of the fundamental values of the Nazi state.

The study of Auschwitz also offers us something other than an insight into the Nazis; it gives us the chance to understand how human beings behaved in some of the most extreme conditions in history. From this story, there is a great deal we can learn about ourselves. For instance, how could Wilfred von Oven, the personal attaché to Dr Josef Goebbels, when asked to sum up his personal experience of the Third Reich exclaim, "paradise"?

One question I asked myself at the beginning of our project was: how was it possible that, during the 20th century, people from Germany, a cultured nation at the heart of Europe, had ever perpetrated such crimes?

The question still sits heavily in my mind today. The view that the crime of the extermination of the Jews was somehow imposed by a few mad people upon an unwilling Europe is one of the most dangerous of all. Hitler magnified and manipulated an anti-Semitism that had already existed and, tragically, continues to exist in some quarters today.

Travelling across Europe to produce the series, I encountered old soldiers unrepentant at their participation in the murder of Jewish prisoners. What shocked me most of all was that these anti-Semitic views were not only confined to the older generation. I remember the woman at the Lithuanian Airways check-in desk who, after learning the subject of the film we were making, said: "You’re interested in the Jews, are you? Well, just remember this - Marx was a Jew." Or, also in Lithuania, I recall an army officer in his mid-20s showing me round the site of the 1941 Jewish massacres at a fort in Kaunas and saying: "You’re missing the big story, you know. The story isn’t what we did to the Jews, it’s what the Jews did to us."

As we followed the journey upon which the Nazis, and those whom they persecuted, embarked, we also gained a great deal of insight into the human condition. And what we learned was mostly not good. In this history, suffering was almost never redemptive. Although there were, on very rare occasions, extraordinary people who did act virtuously, for the most part, this was a story of degradation. It is hard not to agree with the verdict of Else Baker, who was sent to Auschwitz as an eight-year-old, that "the level of human depravity is unfathomable". However, if there is a spark of hope, it was in the power of the family as a sustaining force. Heroic acts were committed by those sent to the camps, for the sake of a father, mother, brother, sister or child.

Perhaps above all, though, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ "Final Solution" demonstrate the power of the situation to influence behaviour to a greater extent than we might like to imagine. It is a view confirmed by one of the toughest and bravest survivors of the death camps, Toivi Blatt, who was forced by the Nazis to work in Sobibor and then risked his life to escape.

He says: "People asked me, ‘what did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing - nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street ... in a different situation could be the worst sadist."

This, I think, is a crucially important point to remember today. Auschwitz is a part of history. Genocide is not. My work on this project is over, but there is one image I have never been able to forget since the day it was first described to me. It was of a procession of empty baby carriages - property looted from the dead Jews - pushed out of Auschwitz in rows of five towards the railway station. The prisoner who witnessed the sight said that they took an hour to pass by.

The children who arrived at Auschwitz in those baby carriages, together with mothers, fathers, brother, sisters, uncles and aunts - all of those who died there - are the ones who will be in my thoughts today.

(Laurence Rees is the writer and producer of Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, currently being screened on BBC Two, and the author of the accompanying BBC book.)



Holocaust Memorial Day misused
By Mark Levene, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post Intelligencer
January 26, 2005


There has always been something rather odd about Holocaust Memorial Day. Its main purpose, so runs the mantra, is to increase public awareness of "the ideals of peace, justice and community for all," and in the words of David Blunkett, the British education secretary at the time of its inception four years ago, "to ensure that our children understand the value of diversity and tolerance."

All good universal stuff, and who could possibly demur? Yet using the Holocaust as a tool for the achievement of this goal seems to cut in a rather different direction. In a century that arguably saw scores of genocides, the attempt to exterminate an entire community across a whole continent, relentlessly pursued over four years, was exceptional. One can make connections between the Jewish genocide and others and, in the case of what was also done by the Nazis to the Roma people (gypsies), very close parallels indeed. But this might also lead one to wonder why the latter rarely seem to be embraced within that "sense of belonging" to which Blunkett in his original encomium claimed to aspire.

The discrepancy here, however, is not just a matter of what the government says and what it does with regard to its multiethnic citizenship. It also is at the core of the Memorial Day itself. As the U.S. historian Peter Novick has pointed out, if you genuinely want to teach lessons to young people on how properly to engage with one another across religious and ethnic divides, you don't go about it by throwing at them the most extreme example of man's inhumanity to man imaginable.

Could it be then, that what the government says Holocaust Day is about is actually a smokescreen for a rather different agenda? Let's just review its history for a moment -- or, rather, its absence. The British Jewish community spent several decades attempting to get official commemoration of their communal catastrophe. To no avail. This also happened to be the period of the Cold War in which the British government, as a leading light in the Western alliance, sought to focus public attention on the evil Soviet empire.

In the '90s, all this suddenly began to change. The nasty Russian enemy had been defeated. With the United States as the primary engine, Holocaust awareness began to take on a public role far beyond the reaches of the Jewish community. But interestingly, as it became more official, and more de rigueur for other countries to follow, its representation also began to change. Not only did it begin to be shorn of its more problematic elements -- not least the 1941-45 Allies' record of failure to recognize its very exceptionality, or provide safe havens for those fleeing it -- at the same time it became so ritualized that any challenge to its incantation began to look like a case of serious bad taste.

This ritualized narrative is, arguably, composed of the following key characteristics: The Holocaust was a life-changing event in the history of mankind; nothing like it has happened before or since. The event itself was one of unspeakable and monstrous evil; those who perpetrated it were "evil." Britain and the United States, however, were not tarnished but strove to defeat the evil -- they were the "liberators." Jews -- victims and survivors -- are identifiable with the liberators, and, hence, with "ourselves." "Never again" must an atrocity of this sort be allowed to take place. The guarantee of our freedom against tyranny and atrocity lies with Western states whose value-system is built upon this fundamental principle.

The West had found its "right" atrocity for the contemporary age. One which, on the one hand, was safe because it was contained within a concretized and politically defused past. And, on the other hand, could be selectively wheeled out every time the government -- when taking on a Saddam Hussein, for instance -- wanted to have its actions on the world stage given a legitimating imprimatur.

The Day, far from being a tool of remembering and commemorating, is actually all about forgetting and avoiding: forgetting Britain's own potential for mass violence inherent in its nuclear weapons program; avoiding too close a scrutiny not just of its many failures to halt genocide in recent times, but much worse, of its actual military, technological and financial support for genocidaires, most strikingly, Saddam at the height of his 1988 exterminatory campaign against the Kurds.

But there is double-irony, of course, in that anything that might involve engagement with the "real" Holocaust has also been lost. This year's Memorial Day peg was originally intended to be all about "refugees." What a surprise this has been quietly forgotten.

None of this in itself provides an argument for doing away with the Memorial Day. Nor for denying it the exceptional sensitivity that it is owed. In the wake of Iraq, there is great value in recalling who exactly within Axis, occupied or even bystander countries during World War II struggled to shelter, rescue and assist their fellow human beings. It was dissenters, whether political, religious or of no creed at all. And they did so by defying and even consciously subverting the wisdom of governments.

This is the true lesson of the Holocaust. And it is, paradoxically, why the Holocaust Memorial Day as it is presently cast with government commemoration at its heart, will not survive.

(Mark Levene is a reader in comparative history at Britain's Southampton University. This article was first published in The Independent.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.