Saturday, 2 April 2016

Not That Again

I went to see Son of Saul the other day. Some people express the view that enough is enough and the whole subject of the Holocaust has been dealt with plenty of times already and it is extremely tiresome that there are those who continue to bang on about it. For me, on the contrary, it seems that the more I learn about it the more I feel the need to find out. I suppose what I really want to find out is how European civilisation came to a point where such things could be contemplated - and not merely contemplated but carried out enthusiastically!

How did anyone even think up the idea of annihilating a race? And then what gave them the temerity to think that it would be all right to suggest such a thing out loud? And finally what drove many to agree and to participate with gusto in the appalling process?

And within the big questions are the smaller ones: were those who drew up plans for the machinery of killing - the Schreibtischmörderer, as Theodor Adorno apparently called them - morally better or worse than those who operated that machinery; were the Jews who were chosen by the Germans to work in the concentration camp zonder commandoes, plundering the clothes of the dead, removing their gold fillings et cetera, victims or culpable? On this second question, I agree with Joshua Cohen who, in a fascinating review of The Wall by HG Adler, (from which I also gleaned that Adorno term) in the London Review of Books, 3 March. 2016, writes:

"... being forced to participate in another's death while waiting for your own was victimisation at its most perverse."

In his review Cohen also details an incident at Theresienstadt that I knew nothing about before - or at least had completely forgotten about (it is largely drawn from WG Sebald's Austerlitz, which I did read a long time ago, but have clearly since forgotten) :

"In the summer of 1944, with Denmark protesting against the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Germany capitulated to diplomatic pressure and allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp to prove that no exterminations were being carried out on site. The Reich Security Main Office, sniffing a PR opportunity, ordered the Gestapo to implement Operation Beautification (Verschönerungsaktion) which would transform the camp temporarily into a picture-postcard hamlet.

Sebald describes it accurately in Austerlitz, because he relied on Adler’s account. ‘It was decided,’ Sebald writes, ‘to organise the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up programme: pathways and a grove with a columbarium were laid out, park benches and signposts were set up, the latter adorned in the German fashion with jolly carvings and floral decoration, over one thousand rosebushes were planted.’ Food rations were increased; new clothes – not just uniforms – were sewn. Conditions in the barracks improved, especially after seven thousand prisoners were dispatched to Auschwitz a month before the inspectors’ arrival. Dr Paul Eppstein, president of the Judenrat, was appointed mayor for the day, and tasked with leading the Red Cross contingent on a tour; Brundibár, a subversive children’s opera whose villain resembled Hitler, was performed; a football game was played, and there was a show trial in which Jewish lawyers, judges and jurors tried another inmate for ‘theft’. The Red Cross report, made public only in 1992, might as well have been ghostwritten by the Reich: ‘The SS police gives the Jews the freedom to organise their administration as they see fit.’ A later propaganda film presented the camp as a spa town for the Jewish elite, which explains Adler’s name for it in The Journey: Ruhenthal means ‘Valley of Rest’. The novel depicts it as a sanatorium with an identity problem: sometimes the Jews are the patients and the Nazis are the benevolent physicians pursuing their ‘cure’; at other times the Nazis are ‘the diseased’, armed lunatics bent on eradicating their Jewish caretakers."
From what I can tell from the Cohen review, Adorno and Adler were at odds over the usefulness of portraying the Holocaust in fictional or poetic form. It seems to me that any means that communicates to large numbers of people both the reality and the horror of the events in the various German concentration camps cannot be criticised. It is important that we never again become complacent about our own capacity for brutality. In this context, I recommend Son of Saul - it is not at all enjoyable but it is powerfully instructive and moving.

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