Lessons from A Holocaust We Cannot Let Ourselves Forget

When we in Britain talk about the World War Two, we do so as victors. And why not? We have plenty of proud images to choose from. Winston Churchill flipping the v’s to Hitler, spitfires loop-the-looping over our defended sovereign nation or the Queen herself, the embodiment of Britain’s living memory of that period, asking us very politely to keep calm and carry on. We talk about the Britain whose army liberated Bergen-Belson and saved Ella Blumenthal from the typhus and TB that had ravaged the camp. The same British soldiers who, upon securing the concentration camp, removed Olga Horak from a German hospital where the nurses refused to treat the Jewish patients. But victory can distort our memory and while we got to write the history of the Second World War, we seem to have forgotten a number of important factors that led to its necessity in the first place.  

This is not an uncommon syndrome, nor one unique to our remembrance of the war. Due to the acceleration of our news cycle, particularly the news that reaches us from the US, it can be easy to forget stories that only occurred a few weeks ago. What with the ease in which Trump’s administration throws out outrageous and regressive decisions, such as his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, it can be quite easy to let something slip from our minds which we found unbelievably revolting or depressing at the time. A recent example I keep re-remembering is current White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s comparison between Bashar Assad and Adolf Hitler, and his comment that the latter never stooped to using chemical weapons. This was only a month ago, but it already feels like it has slipped into the ether of ‘Horrible Trump-ish Things’ along with all the other anti-Semitic lapses in White House judgement. Of course, Hitler did use chemical weapons. He used them as an attempt to wipe out the Jewish people.

Time’s Witnesses: Women’s Voices from the Holocaust, although published originally in 2013, feels like a much-needed reminder of those atrocities at a time when Holocaust denial has become something we must once again suffer. Translated for the 2017 edition by Anne Marie Hagen and originally edited by Jakob Lothe, Time’s Witnesses is a follow up to Lothe’s previous book, Time’s Witnesses: Narratives from Auschwitz, and collects the recollections of ten survivors of the Holocaust. Beyond Auschwitz this time, the witnesses also discuss the other Nazi camps, including Kurzbach and Bergen-Belsen. 

When you are regarded as different and as a second-rate citizen, it does something to your innermost self

Each story takes the reader through the war being declared, Nazi Germany’s changing of the laws to persecute and eventually imprison the Jewish people, and then how each of the witnesses escaped, were saved, or spared. They begin with the identification of Jewish people and almost immediate discrimination. Maria Gabrielsen talks about how even her ration card was different to others. The Jewish ration cards in Austria were green with red letters and if she should drop it or someone else see it, she would be spat on. This was not something which started with the war, as Blanche Major tells us about her time in Hungary when in a classroom discussing religion, she is blamed for having murdered Jesus. After running home to ask her mother what the children meant when they called her a murderer, Major describes how different she suddenly felt. ‘…When you are regarded as different and as a second-rate citizen, it does something to your innermost self. You get a feeling of being inferior and subservient.’ Zdenka Fantlová, who was imprisoned not only in Auschwitz, but later Kurzbach and was forced on a death march to Gross Rosen before she was liberated, describes the Holocaust not as a historical event, but as a warning. It is not difficult to feel the prophecy in this.

Following the London Bridge attacks last Saturday, the Metropolitan police reports a 40 percent increase in racist attacks when compared to any day before the attacks. 48 hours after the incident in Manchester, Dr Naveed Yasin, a trauma surgeon who had spent the night of the attack working on the injured, was verbally abused and told to fuck off back home. The scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims (regardless of the accuracy of the description – Dr Yasin grew up in West Yorkshire) for terror attacks, strains on our public services or unemployment, don’t feel dissimilar to the early atmosphere described by Gabrielson and Major. It is not difficult to see where this sentiment is coming from. Bring up your browser and punch in The Daily Mail or The Sun and you will see your answer. But when a government drives vans around the country with ‘Go home or face arrest,’ a statement that echoes the racist abuse met by those of a Muslim background on the street, there is a problem we must discuss. 

Like a frog in slowly boiling water, we only get individual glimpses as to the state we are becoming

When Germany moved into Hungary and brought their anti-Jewish laws with them, before her removal to a Jewish ghetto, Yvonne Engelman’s father would be regularly taken away by the police and return with missing teeth. After the implementation of the Nuremberg law in the then Czechoslovak Republic, Zdenka Fantová’s family received a letter telling them her school will no longer teach her because of her ancestry. Olga Horak, ashamed of wearing the Star of David the law decreed all Jewish people over the age of six had to wear, because people on the street would abuse her for it, learned to wear her bag high on her chest to cover it. Edith Notowiz tells us about how travel was restricted for all Jewish people and rations, which extended to food, clothes and shoes for Jewish people, were heavily regulated against their favour.

How do you react to a political situation when you are seventeen? Zdenka Fantová, whose lush and detailed description of her time during the war, which includes a doomed engagement with her boyfriend, Arno, said that the best news of the day was that there was to be no school. It is difficult to see this situation creep up around us. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, we only get individual glimpses as to the state we are becoming. Amber Rudd’s proposal to force companies to disclose the identities of foreign workers in their employ. The government’s plan to undermine encryption and cyber privacy to pry into citizens communications and, of course, Theresa May’s most recent declaration that she would be willing to tear up human rights for prisoners to fatten terror legislation. These are ludicrous decisions that, when read alongside Time’s Witnesses, feel uneasily similar to the fascist German laws of the war, but we do not react as though we are approaching the beginnings of a fascist state. It’s almost like we feel like it could not possibly happen again. Fantová sums it up perfectly when she tells us: ‘Surprisingly, you react normally to abnormal conditions.’

There are different means of Holocaust denial and while Donald Trump’s administration’s almost casual denial of what happened to the Jewish people is ugly and upsetting, there is a denial also to how we remember this tragedy. This is the importance of Time’s Witnesses. The witnesses are able to provide a rich, multi-varied perspective of the holocaust. Upon Blumenthal’s arrival at Auschwitz, she describes being sorted by Dr Josef Mengele. The notorious Angel of Death, Blumenthal fears that Mengele will separate her from Roma, a friend who has been by her side throughout the horror.

During the organisation, she is stripped naked and shaved of all her hair. Afterwards, confused and upset, she calls out for her friend, Roma, fearing she has been taken away to the gas chambers but instead realises that Roma is stood right next to her. The two girls, malnourished and naked, with their girlish locks removed, are no longer able to distinguishable themselves from the other prisoners around them. Judith Meisel remembers how, when her blonde hair was shaved off, the SS officer who did the shaving telling another officer that their daughter would love the blonde curls for their doll. The officer has no pity for Meisel and seemingly no awareness of the similarity between his daughter and the young girl he is torturing.

These two women share in their objectification but witness it in different if equally cruel ways. These different experiences are likewise able to provide us with a truth strong enough to confront our self-perpetuating myth of unquestionable Allied heroism. For Zdenka Fantová, the Russian army was a rescuing force to be sought out but for Isabella Wolf, who was liberated by the Soviet Army, they were not everything they hoped. Whilst being walked back eastwards from Bergen-Belsen one of the women in Wolf’s group disappears. She returns later and tells them she had been raped by one of the Russian soldiers. They hear about more rapes as they travel. ‘The way we looked, we may not have been terribly tempting, but the danger of rape was looming,’ says Wolf. 

To not learn the lessons of the Holocaust, to let what happened reoccur, is a denial that, while far more insidious, is just as dangerous. To fail to see the parallel between the conditions that led to the Holocaust and the atmosphere of Islamophobia and scaremongering that we exist in now is to not only forget why we fought the Nazi machine in the first place, but it is to deny those very conditions. Times Witnesses stands as proof that the Nazi’s failed in destroying the voices of these women and the Jewish people, but there can be no victory if the fight isn’t over. Major’s story closes Time’s Witnesses and, rather fittingly, she does so with Ellie Wisesel’s famous line: ‘To forget would be the enemy’s final triumph’

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