As I read the accounts of survivors this Holocaust Memorial Day, it struck me that many of them came from those who had been children during World War II. One even remembered her sister being born in the camp. Even so, they were saying that this was likely to be the last year they would be fit and well enough to visit Poland for the ceremonies.
As interest in the War started to rise during my childhood, and the survivors began to find some comfort in recounting events long-buried, I read a number of memoirs of the events, both in class and out of it. I probably started with Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, telling of a very ordered, quiet life and home interrupted by derring-do with the Dutch Resistance and eventual imprisonment.
Then I picked out Kitty Hart-Moxon’s record of her Return to Auschwitz from our school library. At the time I was at boarding school and couldn’t contemplate what the death camp showers actually meant or looked like. Gazing up at the institutional shower head above me and taking an extra big gulp of air before turning it on, just in case.
Anne Frank’s story was televised when I was a similar age, able to swoon with her over Peter and chafe at being locked up day after day with her family. I remember thinking how tragic it was that she died so close to the end, that if she could have held out a little longer, food and medicine might have been forthcoming. As if the survival of one diarist might have outweighed those lost. And if it is possible to wish for young Anne’s survival, why not that of all the others?
Then there was Schindler – his Ark first, then List – before a borrowed Primo Levi or two. My favourite being If Not Now, When? perhaps because of its partisans who fought back against the Nazis despite the seeming impossibility of victory at that time. And I notice that across all of these narratives it seems as if we prefer the hopeful outcome. That evil can be defeated s0 its victims can return to ‘normal’. It was difficult to read of Kitty Hart-Moxon dealing with colleagues in the UK who would joke about the tattooed numbers on her arm.
Again, a failure of my imagination. As a child I couldn’t understand how you could escape that from all that horror to die by your own hand, as Levi had done, as one of the characters in the excellent, engrossing film The Counterfeiters does, just minutes after the end of the War. It took further reading and here Maus opened my eyes still wider. Surviving was only a part, not the end. Only perhaps the end of the beginning, as the nightmares didn’t stop when the camps were liberated.
Stupidly, I had always thought Zyklon B a humane, clinical death. The science seduces you into believing it was something like chloroform. Maus knocked that right out of my mind. Art Spiegelman’s use of mice and cats to tell his father’s story life – both during and after the War – makes the brutality worse, perhaps because it reminded me of the humanity of those history tells us should be monsters but aren’t. Instead they were family men and women. Competent officers, effective administrators and clerks, who signed off on mass murder as if it were no more than shipping goods from A to B.
And what of when the goods were human beings? Although most memoirs feature the journeys to the camps, they are usually eclipsed by what is waiting on arrival. Jorge Semprún’s The Cattle Truck (also published as The Long Voyage) opens with 120 men being packed in for five days of hell on the way to another – the camp at Buchenwald. It is one of the most claustrophobic openings to a book I have encountered and completely unforgettable. He uses the time to recount his story to an older man, measuring out the miles in tales of his capture, Resistance life and youth in Spain during the Civil War.
Semprún has written extensively of his deportation to the camp, calling it the defining moment of his life. He also speaks in this interview of the blending of his memories with narrative devices more commonly found in fiction:
… my books are generally both memoirs and novels, both fiction and first-hand testimony. My aim was to create a synthesis of the two genres…
When I was working on the most painful parts of the autobiographical narrative, the ones I had postponed for so long, I forced myself to be as stringent as possible, to be absolutely faithful to the historical truth. I did not want to romanticize any of the details, or to distract the reader with dramatic turns of event or artificial moments of narrative tension. So I decided to use my imagination only when it felt necessary in order to produce a more lucid image of my overall experience of the camp.
Works of imagination have the power to deliver sometimes unfathomable truths to readers. Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is not entirely a novel of the Holocaust, yet it lurks in the shadows. On the surface, one would think his infidelities, relationship with his daughter and wife are what are pressing on poet JHJ, that and the work he is supposed to be doing while he dozes in the sun. Women weave around him – daughter, neighbour, wife, lover, friend – but it is the memories of Joe’s mother and sister that endure and prove fundamental.
In talking of what has been lost, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated captured the lost shtetl life while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – which I read in a sticky hot Bangkok December – Michael Chabon’s tale of an imagined Alaskan town peopled by many of the six million, having escaped there in the Thirties, brought a different perspective. I seem to recall (although searching can’t track it down) the author saying that the Holocaust had robbed him of the great networks of European Jewish life: the uncles and aunts, great-grandparents, cousins, friends of the family and distant relatives, that would have been his otherwise.
Seventy years on, what we sometimes think of as historical events, read in textbooks and ‘witnessed’ at arm’s length via films and memoirs, is still part of the unspoken horror of family remembrance, containing the power to warp and destroy relationships down through generations. As even the children of the Holocaust pass into old age and beyond, soon all we will be left with are their stories and their conviction that to know the truth is to guard against it happening again.