Thursday, 19 January 2017

What can be said? Reflections on Auschwitz

These reflections come following a visit to Auschwitz with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of fellow Anglican clergy earlier this month. On Thursday 26th January 2017 I will join with my Jewish colleague and others from around Surrey at the University of Surrey to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. I have been asked to speak at the event having so recently visited Auschwitz. What follows is my beginning to work through what it means to speak about something unspeakable. As Archbishop Justin Welby has said elsewhere, “I’ve come away with too much to write, and no words to write it.” 

But here are some initial thoughts of mine.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent' Ecclesiastes 3.7b

There is a profound silence at Auschwitz.[1] That silence emanates from the deathly hush of the gas chamber after people have been killed - murdered - and before their mortal remains are turned to dust and ashes in the ovens. 

It is said that the birds do not sing at Auschwitz. In my first visit there earlier this month I don't recall birdsong, but that may just have been me being unable to hear sounds of beauty and unrestrained joy in a place that represents the polar opposite of all that is good. What I do remember, whilst walking around Birkenau, was hearing the barking of a dog quite clearly. That bark pierced the freezing air as an inarticulate cry that spoke more deeply than I knew at the time.

The people who were killed at Auschwitz had not always been silent or silenced: they spoke, laughed, cried, had dreams, aspirations and hopes. They prayed: praise, lament, supplication and thanksgiving. They spoke eloquently and passionately; they gossiped and slandered. Some had not even learned how to speak beyond the primeval cry for their mother's breast. In short, they were human beings, ordinary and living their lives. 

The humanity of those killed, in all its ordinariness and prosaic detail, is the first thing that the Nazis sought to deny. Their strategy was one of, first, identification (the Nuremberg laws and the wearing of the yellow star), second, isolation (the ghetto) and, third, eradication (Auschwitz). They predicated all this on the less than humanness of the Jewish people, and because of that they had no right to speak, be heard, or to breathe. Human rights only apply to human beings.

Witnesses to the killing testify that those people who were killed at Auschwitz both sang psalms to God and screamed out in terror: they were not silent lambs led to the slaughter.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

Anything that one writes or says about Auschwitz has to be properly reticent. It can never be casual or cheap. Auschwitz demands that we pay attention to our silences and our speaking. It's not simply about the choice of words but whether or not we deploy words at all.

Why so? In the face the industrialised and systematised processing of death there is little that can be said that is not trite, hollow or over earnest. Anything we might seek to say about Auschwitz has to pass a high burden of authenticity.

In The Edge of Words Rowan Williams points out that choosing to keep silent can operate in more than one way.[2] Silence can be a way of honouring those people and situations about which we cannot properly speak. However the Nazi project was dependent on German society keeping silence about the violence and death at its heart: colleagues, neighbours and friends of Jewish people did not speak out. For every Oskar Schindler and Maximilian Kolbe there are countless stories of people betraying Jewish people and effectively condemning them to Auschwitz and all that that held.

Silence can also manipulate and betray. Not to speak out about Auschwitz, even 72 years since its 'liberation', is an abdication of responsibility. Failure to speak about, and speak out about, Auschwitz will mean a failure to speak out about pernicious anti-Semitism, crimes against humanity and genocide in our own times.

In the wake of Auschwitz we also need to guard against 'over speaking' that is, naming things evil that may be distasteful, so that when that which is truly evil is present it can be identified, isolated and defeated.

Auschwitz puts me, as someone who always wants to speak, or at least talk, in a difficult position. To speak means I might say too much or not enough, to remain silent, whilst honouring the dead, also can collude with the silence about their fate and what led and leads to it. All I can do is make that judgement in the hope that I speak well: if nothing more, Auschwitz makes me all the more aware of the power and 'edge' of words and silence. May Auschwitz, the place and the idea, never be forgotten or the memory of those who died there fall silent.

'There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent'

I want to conclude with the words of Elie Weisel an Auschwitz survivor, the author of Night, with words from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

The world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and woman are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center [sic] of the universe.[3]

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] When I am referring to Auschwitz, I am referring to both a place and an idea: the concentration camp and death camp - Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2, at Birkenau - and also using 'Auschwitz' as representing the whole Nazi eradication programme of God's ancient people, the Jews, intentional, brutal and evil as it was, and the others - amongst them Poles, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviets, catholic priests and religious - who were also murdered.
[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), Especially on silence as a moral choice, 48-51.
[3] Elie Wiesel, trans. Marion Wiesel. Night. (London: Penguin Books. 2006), 118.

No comments:

Post a Comment