‘beyond all imagination’. holocaust memorial day and writing the incomprehensible

By Charlotte Stevenson

Current student Charlotte Stevenson reflects on the recent screening of Night and Fog for Holocaust Memorial Day and on her reading of Rena’s Promise for the module Conflicting Words, commenting on the tension between the necessity of commemoration and impossibility of writing about the unimaginable. 

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, the City of York Council arranged for a screening of one of the first accounts of the Holocaust, Night and Fog (1955). The screening took place at York St John University, followed by a discussion on the themes of the film. Night and Fog is a collection of footage and photographs, which was originally created to mark the 10 year anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps across Europe. It is a strikingly grotesque and fascinating account of the mass Genocide which has since become a crucial and dominant event of the Twentieth Century. The black and white images are from the survived German footage destined to propaganda for the German public or to monitor human experiments. In being confronted unapologetically by the images, many problematic questions arise, which still have no answer in the present day. For instance: how would we respond to a similar situation? How does the individual respond to the trauma of the Holocaust? How is it possible to write about all that happened in order to give it the justice it deserves? How can a modern public that did not directly experience World War II comprehend this tragedy in full?

The documentary, in fusing the footage with French music and the poetry of Cayrol, does not answer those questions. It explores the experience of life within these desolate places, and focuses explicitly on remembering the atrocities towards Jewish people to ensure that such a crime against humanity should never occur again in the future. It is eerie to see the black and white footage of the deserted bunks and gas chambers in contrast with the words on the signs at the entrance: ‘Work Is Freedom’, ‘To Each His Own’. In 30 minutes, Night and Fog shows a dehumanization with no bounds, with camp inmates reduced to numbers, forced to dig their own graves, form a hierarchy including a Jewish Council, be part of human experiments which more often than not left them dead at the hands of the notorious Mengele.

The way in which Night and Fog looks back and cuts straight to the reality of the concentration camp experience, is also recognizable in the autobiographical text Rena’s Promise, a book which  I’m currently studying  in the literature module ‘Conflicting Words’. The text focuses on the fact that, whilst concentration camps have long been empty of their previous occupants, the stories told by the survivors emphasize how the surreal reality of struggle and pain is still very much alive for the victims. Rena was between the first 999 women sent to Auschwitz. She recounts how her and her sister survived the war, thanks their own desperate efforts  but also with the help and the kindness of the people they encountered during their imprisonment. As in Night and Fog, there is no compromise in Rena’s voice when relaying what happened to the people who lived through starvation, violence and death. At one point Rena states painfully, ‘we have forged our own prison’, as she and her sister move into the blocks at Auschwitz they helped to build.

After the screening of Night and Fog, we were invited to reflect in silence on what we had seen and to remember the victims who perished at the hands of Nazi violence. When the moment of silence and reflection moved on to the discussion, one of the first observation was: ‘how is it possible to fully comprehend the scale of the Shoah? How do we take that unthinkable statistic and process it rationally?’ Whilst this is something that the individual mind can never fully grasp, it was discussed how to reduce the Holocaust experience to an individual story (specific examples discussed being Elie Wiesel’s Night and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) seems to limit the atrocity to only to a few direct accounts. What arise from the discussion was the idea that, rather than labeling Holocaust texts as ‘Jewish books’ in the attempt to pinpoint a specific way of looking at it, academics continue to attempt to find a balance between being critical and being compassionate. Being critical towards war literature, specifically that of the Holocaust, is difficult because it is such a delicate area. Nonetheless it is necessary to keep working towards that balance in order to recognize, when analyzing work such as Rena’s Promise and Night and Fog, that art can still be born from bleakness. Great art comes out of great tragedy, which needs to be commented on as honestly as all other material. Even though we cannot ever fully understand such an atrocity, we have the ability and the duty to share and teach the legacy of the Shoah, continuing to spread the harrowing message of warning present in all the material about the Holocaust.

The final note on which I would like to end regards the legacy, and the respect of memory. One of the point of discussion was about the presence of a cafe in Auschwitz. A speaker asked how this can be justified and how is it acceptable to pause in a desperate place to eat tea and cake. In response Dr. Adam Stock raised the subject of taking selfies in Auschwitz. The Jewish faith representative at York St. John’s responded by stating how this shows the unreality of the experience for young people visiting Auschwitz today, and how people taking selfies and feeling that such awful things seem to have happened only in a movie emphasizes the need to continue sharing the accounts of the Nazi concentration camps. Only this way, the kind of hatred where anyone who is different or is perceived as a threat can be simply taken away, beaten, starved, silenced and killed, can be stopped. It may not be possible to process that huge number of lost lives, but it is possible to grieve and to promise at the site of that railroad that such a thing will never happen again: there will be no more trains to Auschwitz.

We cannot get by Auschwitz. We should not even try, as great as the temptation is, because Auschwitz belongs to us, is branded into our history, and – to our benefit! – has made possible an insight that could be summarized as, ‘Now we finally know ourselves.’ – Gunther Grass