International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27

There are many Holocaust remembrance days. Poland, for example, commemorates the anniversary of the   Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19. Jewish communities and Isreal mark Yom HaShoah on the 27th of Nisan (which falls in April or May) as a day to remember both those who were murdered by the Nazis but also the Jewish resistance to the Nazis.

Many nations (and since 2006, the UN) remember the Holocaust on January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945. The Auschwitz, Birkenau, Monowitz was the largest complex of its kind, combining labour camps (e.g. for IG Farben) and death camps in which people were slaughtered en-masse. One in six of the Jewish people killed in Nazi camps died in the Auschwitz camps.

An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to the camp, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Around 90 percent of those killed were Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp.[1][2] Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals.[3] Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp

The great Italian writer (and occasional science fiction writer) Primo Levi was one of those who was liberated on that day. In If This Is a Man, (also titled “Survival at Auschwitz”) Levi tells of his arrest in Italy as a member of the anti-fascist resistance and his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In it he says:

A country is considered the more civilised the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.

In The Periodic Table, Levi managed to combine his literary powers with his fascination in chemistry (his other profession) and to find poetry and meaning in humble states of matter:

[Nitrogen:] The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.

This contrast between the extraordinary capacity for fascism to both degrade people and find disgust in humanity, versus his own need to see things as they are runs through his work. Periodic Table again:

[Zinc:] In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.

I’ll finish with Levi’s poem from the start of If This Is a Man which is a demand to remember, to meditate that this came about, and finishes with a curse on those who forget.

You who live safe
In your warm houses
You who fin 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

 

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