Art, hope, and adversity: Viewing the Holocaust in retrospect
Till the age of eleven, I had no idea of the adversities unleashed on the Jews and my introduction to it came in the form of a book that I picked out for myself at a book store. The title appealed to me: The diary of a young girl. As a young girl, I decided I wanted it. I read the book, flipping the pages with an obsession, and kept it aside thinking this was the most beautiful story ('story' meant ‘fiction’ to my 11-year-old self) I had read. It was only later that coursework at school introduced me to the reality of it all; the organized attack that was unfurled on a group of people that had lived and breathed. I was dumbfounded; I couldn’t comprehend how something like this could’ve been allowed to happen. How could a person's (worse, a group of persons') hatred towards someone be so great as for them to launch a systematic attack on the latter's very existence?
The importance of hope in times of adversity is something that I have been giving a lot of thought to, recently. With the world on fire and dismal proofs of failing systems around every corner, I tried to think of ways in which humans cope with collective distress so behemoth in order as it is today. A hundred years from now, when the world is (hopefully) calmer and we will have turned to dust, the personal accounts documented now might affect people in a myriad of ways. Art, broadly, seems to me to be an instrument through which humans hope to survive trying times. And so, I looked back at my own encounters with 'hope, art, and adversity' in consuming works of art related to the Holocaust. A true window into that time is possible through art which, unlike the ephemeral human life, is eternal. The objective is to bring to fore just how much the human mind and body can go through if only one dares to hope.
While each piece of art birthed during/ from the holocaust is vividly harrowing, the most touching are the first-hand accounts. The one that birthed this essay is Steven Spielberg and Victor Pinchuk’s 2006 documentary, Spell your Name: Surviving the Darkest Days of History, which shows three students reliving the Holocaust in Ukraine as they transcribe interviews conducted by the Shoah foundation from 1994 to 1998. The documentary brings forward the experiences of Holocaust survivors and those who aided them, in addition to introducing the young students’ perceptions of the crimes against humanity perpetrated on their own motherland. Some subtleties of the Ukrainian-Jewish relations are also nuanced in the questions posed. The viewer is faced with the question of who the subjects of the documentary are, the survivors, or the students - a question that screams louder when the camera freezes on the computer screen through which the director was reviewing the students working on the survivors’ interviews; the number of screens serves to make one realize the number of layers of interpretation over time and space, that stand between the victims and oneself.
“Many years have passed since then but every moment hurts. It is the pain of memory,”
says a voice in Ukrainian, before the interviewers ask the survivors and rescuers to spell their names. The camera rolls over a dull, icy river, as the names are spelled out: “Z-A-N-V-E-L-E-V R-O-S-S-I-N-S-K-Y”. The interviewees begin by recounting their lives before the occupation of Ukraine (1941-1944) during which 150,000 Jews perished. They talk about their friends, their neighborhoods, the music that they listened to and enjoyed; how happy they were when the Soviets arrived in 1940. The transcribers can be seen smiling, listening to the interviewees share the pleasant memories that they had of their formative years, it is the moment the connection between the two begins to take shape. Not long thence, the audience is shown chained doors with heavy locks that lead to dilapidated homes. Synagogues turned into living apartments are shown briefly. The film is interspersed with glimpses from the home and life of an elderly couple living in one such apartment; they welcome the documentarians to their home but don’t want to recount their past experiences. Shown in a gray and white stop-action, they appear to be apparitions, happy, content, quiet spirits in a world of their own.
The documentary proceeds with the survivors recounting their introduction to the war: a man who was eleven years old at the time saw his friend get blown up by a bomb and reminisced “In that moment, I grew wise. I understood what war was. Right then and there, I grew up.” A woman says, with a slight tremble in her voice, “3 huge ditches were dug. When did they dig them? If only someone would’ve said something… but no one warned us… They chased us like a dog catcher chases dogs.” Others narrate their experiences in the same chime, till they recount, with visible pain (among other emotions), their experiences of the mass killings. One wizened woman recalls an old man who had stood up when gunfire rained on the Jews,
“There was an old man dressed all in black. He raised his hands up to the sky - as if he would touch it, and screamed: “God! Where are you?”.”
The rescuers also talk about how the othering of Jews was observable even before the Germans came, how age-old stereotypes “of the Jew as a salesman and a moneylender” still exist. Each interview is followed by the shots of drab, gray doors, dilapidated buildings, and empty streets, to let the audience take in what they have heard. The extent of suffering that these people underwent leaves one dumbfounded, with just one question screaming in their thoughts: how could this have been allowed to happen?
This point brings to mind a marvelous work of writing set in the German context. ‘The Reader’, authored by Bernhard Schlink, explores in great philosophical detail, the question of The German Fate, which is a collective dilemma of the writer's generation, whose parents were tacit spectators of the Nazi evil. The protagonist asks himself when his lover is acquitted in a trial for crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War:
“How could it be a comfort that the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate, and that it was only more difficult for me to evade, more difficult for me to manage, than others?”
This is the essence of the novel; a compelling meditation on the linkages between Germany’s past and present, the lives of a generation whose parents had shared the crime; the latter weren’t direct aggressors but had played a significant role in the massacres by declining to oppose the Nazi evil, even if it was out of fear for their own lives. And so, the present generations, too, are fettered by the knowledge of what their ancestors did, or didn’t do, which shrouds in a perceptible gloom the reminisces of the Holocaust.
The students transcribing the interview in Spell Your Name also struggle with this question in the aftermath of the Holocaust in Ukraine. When asked “Would you like to be a Jew?”, the student asks: “Then or now?”
“No,” she says quietly. Another student talks about how she was told people identified Jews by the way their earlobes looked, and she says “Perhaps if I started paying attention to it, I would start seeing them as different, at least subconsciously. But I don’t want that. I don’t want that for myself.” Moments like these in the film are few but convey meaning beyond the meager seconds allowed to them on screen. As a viewer, these moments made the film more relevant to me; they helped me gauge an understanding of the perceptions regarding religion and humanity that have traveled through time and continue to hold deep roots even today, in a seemingly ‘modern’ world, where religious fundamentalism and protectionism are rearing their heads in 'modern' ways.
The film comes to a close with the director and his crew touring the Babi Yar, a ravine in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. The site is the mass grave of 150,000 Jews, Ukrainian soldiers, and individuals of other ethnic groups, who were massacred by the German forces. The scene brings into perspective the sheer scale of the killings, destruction, and suffering that human ideas are capable of bringing about. Despite being a fitting end to the film, the scene seems disjointed from the rest of the narration and leaves the audience feeling turmoiled with a range of ideas that seemingly culminate in a call for peace, through a film of a film that spoke and cried. However, despite raising a host of questions in its 90-minute-running and focussing on the minutiae, the film fails to provide a conclusive answer, or even an objective assessment, of the Ukrainian-Jewish connections as they are today. This made me wonder if it is even possible to remove the sentimentalities from the brutality and its aftermath.
A few months ago I came across the recent news that Anne Frank’s only memorial in the US was defaced by self-proclaimed Nazis. I had just started working on this essay and was utterly shocked at discovering that such disrespect for a people so grossly wronged, to say the least, exists and is breeding even today. I wrote to a friend and they said something that has stuck with me: “Nazism never died. Hatred never dies.” There are people today who refuse to accept that the Holocaust ever happened. Coupled with this, anti-Semitist thought has made a reappearance in parts of Europe. Even as people in the last legs of their lives are brought to justice through trials of Nazi crime, and thousands struggle to make peace with their pasts, news like that of the defacement of Anne’s memorial make one question if we have even moved forward. In these seemingly dismal progressions, one individual and her efforts stand out: Kitty Hart-Moxon.
Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, has dedicated her life to educating people about the horrors of the Nazi crime. Offering a caveat, she says (regarding the Holocaust):
“Not in the history of mankind has there been industrial killing of this scale. If something happened once, there is absolutely no reason why it can’t happen again.”
Now 94, Kitty survived two years in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where she was sent in 1943, at the young age of 16. She can be seen walking young students through the site today, in Steve Purcelle’s 2015 film ‘A Day in Auschwitz’. Treading through the dry, dreary area, Kitty points to blocks and buildings, narrating chilling stories of her time there, over 70 years ago. She says “Survival depended on if you could not think about anything; just have a tunneled vision and think like an animal”. She narrates how she survived, what she gave up, and all that was forcefully taken away from her. Seeing the octogenarian find her way, hanging on to the younger girls for support, while her voice remained strong makes one appreciate the woman’s strength, her sheer grit to spread awareness, to sensitize, and to educate, which leaves one awestricken.
Through my research in writing this essay, one theme stood out in each account that I read or listened to, each film that I watched, and each book that I read: the power of hope. Forced to confront their losses, be they emotional, physical, or material, survivors and all those who helped them, stood together hoping things would be better someday. Anne Frank, one of the most widely-known victims of the Holocaust, was hopeful of better days till the last entry she made in her personal diary on the 1st of August, 1944, a mere three days before she would be arrested and sent to her death. Kitty Hart-Moxon herself survived 7 camps and persevered, knowing, hoping, of better times. Through much of the art that the harrowing period of the Holocaust has birthed, fear and hope seem to coexist.
With this knowledge on our backs, our reading club, The Night Owl Reads, is going to discuss Viktor E. Frankl's masterpiece 'Man's Search for Meaning', which is an account of Frankl's own experiences as a Jew in a concentration camp, and how it shaped his work in the field of Psychology. We hope that this brings some perspective to our lives today when the condition of the world seems abysmal at best. To join the discussion, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Pallavi Singh, the EIC at The Night Owl Writes.