This is an article in response to Holocaust Memorial week and two television programmes concerning The Holocaust – the recently-screened documentary, ‘Night Will Fall’ and Sunday morning’s discussion programme ‘The Big Questions’.
The phrasing of the interrogative itself – ‘Should the Holocaust be laid to rest?’ - on this morning’s ‘The Big Questions’ stung like an insult. The idea of ‘laying something to rest’ implies the pacification of feeling, even forgetting, which I believe the exact opposite of the attitude we should take when addressing the Holocaust.
There has been much recent media debate in terms of memorialisation – for example in terms of the poppies exhibition at the Tower of London regarding the soldiers tragically killed in World War One. The argument here seems largely in terms of representation – it is right to turn lives lost into a ‘visitor attraction’ or spectacle? Yet what I witnessed last night on television was not spectacle but raw reality – the screening of a previously unseen documentary based on eyewitness footage of the Nazi work and concentration camps. ‘Night Will Fall’ is a documentary compiled in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, based on the original camera-work of World War Two soldiers and Sidney Bernstein, who had been commissioned in 1945 to create a ‘historical record’ of what was witnessed during the liberation of the camps. The film was originally titled ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Survey’, to be overseen by Alfred Hitchcock. Yet, hauntingly in itself, this was a documentary originally ‘laid to rest’ so to speak as deemed, in the words of one survivor feared to ‘be a political inconvenience’ at a time of attempted European conciliation post-war.
It is through the work of the Imperial War Museum and the screening of the documentary on Channel Four , that we have been offered insight into the turbulence of the truth. The paradox of the orchards outside Bergen-Belsen shown shortly before the fields of countless corpses inside. In the words of the narrator of the documentary, piles of female bodies like ‘marble statues’ , piles of human hair and hacked-off jawbones from which even the teeth were removed. This is a human tragedy which cannot be laid to rest as the victims were not themselves given the dignity of ‘being laid to rest’. The footage shows American and British soldiers attempting to bury bodies through mechanical means in mass graves – bodies which had been wiped of identity, decency, dignity.
As image after appalling image emerged, I felt increasingly numb. The continuous view of corpses seemed almost unreal, bodies bent beyond recognition, mere skin over bones. These were people treated inhumanely. To forget them would be inhuman.
My numbness and shock slid to anger on watching ‘The Big Questions’ this morning. Under the question ‘should the Holocaust be laid to Rest’ – there were a number of panellists concerned that other examples of genocide or other groups involved in the holocaust do not get the same recognition; a strange experience almost in terms of the argument of comparative suffering. All human suffering by the means of genocide is appalling. Then surely the question should not be ‘should the holocaust be laid to rest’ but ‘how can we remember it?.’ Rather than limiting discussion of The Holocaust in terms of labels of ethnicity or religion – the holocaust should be seen in its awful reality, as the result of intolerance, injustice and oppression.
In turn, to simply ask the question ‘should The Holocaust be laid to rest?’ is to fail to take action. In regards to ‘How should the holocaust be remembered?’ is to take action – just as the Imperial War Museum have done in allowing this documentary to be produced. This morning, in ‘The Big Questions’, a human rights campaigner pointed out that homosexuals were also victims of the holocaust, disabled people were also victims of the holocaust. When these themselves are potentially underdiscussed issues, people still persecuted, how can the holocaust ‘be laid to rest?'
The victims of The Holocaust were varied individuals, they led colourful lives, they were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers. Yet the tragic commonality of their experience was that they were deprived of their human rights, their humanity, due to unjust intolerance. These people were deprived of their freedoms, deprived of their ability to act. That is why the Holocaust cannot be ‘laid to rest’ – because we ourselves have a responsibility to act for all those who could not. We can act to eradicate intolerance in its many forms, for the holocaust incorporated intolerance in many forms – an intolerance of (but not limited to) the Jewish race, of homosexuals, of travelling people, of the disabled – groups and communities targeted by an ideology lacking humanity. This is not about pinpointing a single race, or a set of statistics. I believe that ‘Night Will Fall’ is a film about the fight of what it is to be human, as etched on the faces of the inspirational survivors interviewed – and to be human is not to ignore it. To be human is to take steps to eradicate the intolerance which did not give a chance to others.
That is why the holocaust cannot be ‘laid to rest.’ To rest is to fail to react to injustice and intolerance. And that is why in attempting to increase our engagement in campaigns which call for greater tolerance, in whatever way we can – whether human rights activism, religious activism, mental health activism - we can allow this commutation to expand, far beyond the screen, and into society. You have the choice of whether to watch ‘Night Will Fall’ or not – but the victims of the holocaust were stripped of choice. Over the years, different people made different choices in regard to how the documentary material of the concentration camps was dealt with – The Americans clipped the footage for a much shorter propaganda film under the direction of Billy Wilder, some chose not to show it all. But it is important that for those of us that can choose to act, we can make a difference – whether it is working for rights on a community, national or international level, we can make the choice towards eradicating the evil of intolerance.
I am attempting to end the discrimination against the mentally ill in my community - http://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/time-to-change/ . What will you do?