thoughts: on holocaust memorial day.

view from the tower
more photos on flickr


You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
– Primo Levi

I read Sarah Ditum’s piece at The New Statesman earlier.  I’ve often wondered, how parents do this – how they make the choices they do about it.  My own mother read me The Diary of Anne Frank when I was six or seven, and that was my introduction.  It’s always been a part of my awareness, the first bit of history to exercise a fascination for me. Anne was followed in books by Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, by I am David, by A Square of Sky, The Hiding Place, Schindler’s List and ultimately, by If this is a Man, and by visits, while travelling, to Dachau, to Auschwitz, to Sachsenhausen.  I wanted to know. As if by knowing I could understand.

But now.  One of the responsibilities, I think, of getting older, is learning how to hold things without trying to extract meaning from them. Of failing to understand and living with that failing because you are not the answer and you cannot make it better.

You have to know. You have to acknowledge. Hugo Rifkind has written powerfully about that today.  To learn and think about the cause and effects of the historical forces of the early twentieth century is worthwhile, and of the psychological and social tendencies of humanity that are a factor.  But most of us, fortunately cannot understand. And honestly, should be grateful not to understand, in the way that Daniel Mendelsohn understands:

A few years ago, I was in Berlin, where I saw the Holocaust Memorial. It doesn’t have a single meaning, or a truth. It just is.  A field of individual stelae, a collective mass of stones and history.  There are a hundred routes straight through the field, or there’s a maze.  You stand in it, you can touch it, but for each bit you touch, you miss another.  It’s dislocating and chilling – especially in the snow.  The day I was there the sun was starting to melt the snow that had settled on top of some of the stelae, with water droplets running down the sides of the blocks like tears.



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