Remembering Auschwitz: sharing stories

January 27, 2020

Remember. Share the stories. Search for, find and share the stories of as many different people as possible. As many different perspectives as possible. To get somewhere near a complete picture of the past, and the present, many voices are needed, and I am grateful to all the journalists, podcasters, writers, and family members who over the past decades have taken down stories so that they became accessible for others, and all the people and organisations – including my colleagues at PAX – working for remembering.

Today we remember Auschwitz. The concentration camp that became the symbol for the systematic mass murder of hundreds of thousands Jewish, Roma, and (politically) active citizens from all over Europe during the Second World War. Today, Dutch author Arnon Grunberg (whose mother is an Auschwitz survivor) presents his selection of stories of those who were held in the camp and survived – till the liberation in 1945 or long enough to write down their stories. “The real witnesses are those who didn’t survive,” says Grunberg, after Primo Levi, and there is truth in that.

How would we act?

And there are other stories. Last summer when I cycled across Europe, Auschwitz, so significant a symbol in European history, was the only planned stop on the way. I went, prepared to be touched, and I was. The vastness of Auschwitz II Birkenau as a physical representation of the scale of crime and cruelty. The gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau destroyed as the Red Army advanced – but the oldest crematorium at army barrack Auschwitz I still holding the horror as tangible and black as the sooth on its walls. Prisoners’ portraits, so many that it becomes unfathomable – and these are not all of them. And there I understood that there are also other stories, and that it might be worth telling those, too. The stories of ordinary citizens of Poland and Germany who, as a result of different choices and circumstances, ended up working for the SS, becoming tools of torture in the hands of the machinery of the Reich. The inner pain, pressure, possible numbness, of those who committed the cruelties. How could they transform into torturers? What can we learn from this? How would we act in their circumstances?

Remember Auschwitz. Remember the whole of it, with humility. We do not know if we would have been any better. We do not know what choices we would make. What choices we will make if critical situations of legalised crime and killing arise again in the future. We can be more conscious of the choices we are making today when we remember what has happened there.

Remember human dignity

Remember the gulag. Remember the refugee camps, the migrants drowned at sea. Remember human dignity, the value of each individual human life, the beauty of their eyes, the power of their stories. Many stories, many perspectives, many small facts of life that make up History. Let History not be forced in a single, state-dictated narrative. Let History not be rewritten into reasons for today’s political decisions, or arguments in battles over heroes and villains. We’re only human, after all, and creating one official ‘truth’ denies the individual truths of too many.

Let History be multiple. We need the multitude of stories, the whole horrendousness of what happened, in order to remember and to be, or strive to become, fully human.

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