We didn´t see God when we expected to - Human language turned mute before the horrors of Auschwitz (GUARDIAN UK COMMENT) Aharon Appelfeld 01/28/05)
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In January 1945, 60 years ago, the wheels of destruction in Auschwitz
stood still. The few people left alive describe the prevailing
silence as the silence of death. Those who came out of hiding after
the war, out of the forests and monasteries, also describe the shock
of liberation as freezing, crippling silence. Nobody was happy. The
survivors stood at the fences in amazement. Human language, with all
its nuances, turned into a mute tongue. Even words like horror or
monster seemed meagre and pale, not to mention words like anti-
semitism, envy, hatred. Such a colossal crime can be committed only
if you mobilise the darkest dark of the soul. To imagine such
darkness apparently needs a new language.
"Where were we?" "What did we go through?" "What´s left of us?" the
survivors wondered. Primo Levi tried to use images of Dante´s hell;
others turned to the works of Kafka, especially The Trial and In the
In the penal colony of Auschwitz, the Jew was not condemned because
of his old or new beliefs, but because of the blood that flowed in
his veins. In the Holocaust, biology determined a person´s fate. In
the Middle Ages, the Jew was killed for his beliefs. A Jew who chose
to convert to Christianity or Islam was saved from his suffering. In
the Holocaust, there was no choice. Observant Jews, liberal Jews,
communist Jews and Jews who were sure they weren´t Jews were crammed
into the ghettos and camps. Their one and only offence: the Jewish
blood in their veins.
The Holocaust stretched over six years. Such long years there
probably never were in Jewish history. Those were years when every
minute, every second, every split second held more than it could
bear. Pain and fear reigned, but even then, in the midst of hunger
and humiliation, the amazement sprouted: "Is this Man?"
During the Holocaust, there was no place for thought or feeling. The
needs of the hungry and thirsty body reduced one to dust. People who
had been doctors, lawyers, engineers and professors only yesterday
stole a piece of bread from their companions and when they were
caught, they denied and lied. This degradation that many experienced
will never be wiped out.
Under conditions of hunger and cold, the body, we learned in the
camps, is liable to lose its divine qualities. That too was part of
the wickedness of the murderer: not only to murder, but first to
humiliate the victim utterly, to exterminate every shred of will and
faith, to turn him into a despicable body whose soul had fled, and
only then, that degradation complete, to murder him. The lust to
debase the victim until his last moments was just as great as the
lust for murder.
In 1945, the ovens were extinguished. Jean Améry, a prisoner of
Auschwitz and one of the outstanding thinkers on the Holocaust, says
in one of his essays: "Anybody who was tortured will never again feel
at home in the world."
Great natural disasters leave us shocked and mute, but mass murder
perpetrated by human beings on human beings is infinitely more
painful. Murder reveals wickedness, hatred, cynicism and contempt for
all belief. All the evil in man assumed a shape and reality in the
ghettos and camps. The empathy that we once believed modern man felt
for others was ruined for all time.
In 1945, the great migration of the survivors began: a sea of bodies,
killed many times over and now resurrected. Some wanted to return to
their countries and their homes, some wanted to go to America, and
some wanted to reach the shores of the Mediterranean and go from
there to Palestine. Even then, in that strange resurrection, the
first questions arose: What is a Jew? Why are we persecuted so
bitterly and cruelly? Is there something hidden in us that condemns
us to death? Many felt - if an individual may speak for the many -
that the six years of war were years of profound trial. We had been
in both hell and purgatory and we were no longer what we were.
Some entered hell as pious people and came out of it just as pious.
That position deserves respect. But most survivors - myself, and
especially the young - were outside the realm of faith, and from the
first stages of the liberation we were engaged with the question of
how to go on living a life with meaning. The temptation to forget and
be forgotten, and to assimilate back into normal life, lurked for
every survivor. We can barely grasp and internalise the death of one
child. How can we grasp the death of millions?
For the sake of sanity, the survivors built barriers between
themselves and the horrors they had experienced. But every barrier,
every distance, inevitably separates you from the most meaningful
experience of your life, and without that experience, hard as it may
be, you are doubly defective: a defect imposed on you by the
murderers and a defect you perpetrated with your own hands.
God did not reveal himself in Auschwitz or in other camps. The
survivors came out of hell wounded and humiliated. They were betrayed
by the neighbours among whom they and their forefathers had lived.
They were betrayed by western culture, by the Germans, by the
language and literature they admired so much. They were betrayed by
the great beliefs: liberalism and progress. They were betrayed by
their own bodies.
What to hold on to to live a meaningful life? It was clear to many
that the denial of one´s Judaism, which characterised the emancipated
Jew, was no longer possible. After the Holocaust it was immoral.
No wonder many of the survivors went on to Israel. No doubt they
wanted to get to a place where they could leave their victimhood
behind and assert responsibility over their fate, a place where they
could connect with the culture of their forefathers, to the language
of the Bible, and to the land that gave birth to the Bible.
This is not a story with a happy ending. A doctor who survived, from
a religious background, who sailed to Israel with us in June 1946,
told us: "We didn´t see God when we expected him, so we have no
choice but to do what he was supposed to do: we will protect the
weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility
is all ours." (Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
01/28/05) © Aharon Appelfeld 2005
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