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Everyday nowadays, the news seems to bring some other shocking facts or events – innocent citizens bombed, partying people murdered, a new civil war, a secret military mission, a coup… being sad or claiming solidarity on the internet is not enough anymore. It is high time that we make more of an effort to understand more of what is going on. What is ISIS about, the state that aims to be without borders, and that claims so many attacks. What is happening in those countries that were said to live through an ‘Arabic spring’, even when they were not in Arabia, but in Africa. Spring was soon over, coalitions were formed, old rivalries that ‘the West’ not even knew about came to the fore, and chaos in most cases seemed the only lasting result. And now, the failed coup in Turkey. People are twittering for or against the putschists, both in the name of democracy – how is that possible? If the president makes an appeal for people to support the nation – what does he mean?

In my latest post I made an attempt to outline my father’s views on the nation state – which, he thought, had become obsolete, something of the past. His experience, on that not so fine day, of foreign soldiers just crossing the border and walking past your house as if they had the right to do so – made it clear that the naive trust that our country is a protected piece of the earth, safe, belonging to ‘us’, the people who have the right to live here, is just that: naive. The imagined protection by this country, which makes us call it ‘home’, depends on the strategies and secret actions of governments, secret services, international trading agreements, financial deals: all kinds of complex things out of the sight of the normal citizen. When people say: ‘we don’t want any more strangers to enter our country’,  they imagine that there is such a thing: a country which can be possessed, enjoyed as ours. It can, of course, but this enjoyment and its benefits depend on forces we may not even want to know.

And then, a government can pronounce the state of emergency and close its borders. Because there is a threat from within. There is an enemy in ‘our country’, and the state power promises to find it before it can escape, and – to use that so often misused slogan, ‘to bring it to justice’. If the borders are closed, every citizen can potentially be that enemy, this has to be found out, so what made the country safe in the imagination, the powers that represent the nation with its borders, now make it into a virtual prison. Not free to move, to get out. Or to get in.

Yesterday evening I started reading in the memoir of Raul Hilberg (1926-2007), the historian who was the first to try to understand the genocidal crimes of nazi Germany against the Jews, and others, by meticulously sifting through the German archives that were brought to the US after the war. The memoir relates of how this monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, which essentially determined his whole life, took shape, and what happened after that. I was struck especially by the first part of the memoir, in which he described how his fascinations as a child for geography, for maps, and for trains, eventually developed into deeply philosophical insights into the construct of the nation, the state, its inner workings, the balance of powers that keeps it floating, so to speak. I want to give you some quotations, which beautifully illustrate the kind of reflection we need to understand the complex events around states, borders, and powers, of our day.

“At the age of ten I was presented with a precious book. [..] The book was an atlas. A masterpiece of cartography, it was made for the eye, with maps so finely shaded that they highlighted the distinctions between major and minor rivers, deeper and more shallow waters, higher and lower mountains. Railroad tracks were always sketched in red, and cities were shown with circles and lettering denoting their size. Soon I leaped across the topographical features to the international frontiers. Here was something new: the political world, the world of power. Needless to say, Germany’s and Austria’s territorial losses in the First World War were indicated on several maps, and understandably Palestine was absorbed in an Arab desert.” (p. 41) The way this is written, Hilberg takes his reader from the wonder of nature, to the still relatively innocent wonder about human civilization, to another level of the map: the political struggles of nations over the land, to move on from there to the level where their recent wars, and the impending ones become visible, and finally to the way these wars use the technique of remembering old borders, or of emptying the map of stateless nations.

When the Hilberg parents, with their son, a Jewish family, fled Austria in 1939, Raul experienced the problem with borders and state power once more and described it in a very illustrative manner: “On April 2, 1939, we were on a train moving slowly across the Rhine bridge linking Kehl, Germany, to Strasbourg, France. A German woman approached my mother in the corridor of the railway car and, full of curiosity, asked my mother for her reactions to the Nazi regime. […] My mother replied that she would not speak until we had reached Strasbourg. A few minutes later we were free and – to be precise about our new status – refugees.” (p. 43) The train, moving over the earth, crossing a river, a bridge, a border, and on one side you could say ‘home country’, but not speak your mind;  on the other side of that imaginary line you could, but would be forever uprooted.

When a few years later Raul returned to Germany with the US army, and saw a field where so many young German man lay dead after a battle, he asked himself why they were still sacrificing themselves for that lost state, the third Reich. “I already knew that the state, and its political order, rests on the possibility of an ultimate resort to force by a government acting against its own citizenry. The men who, with barking officers behind their backs, made their suicide run were proof of the viability of this system.” (p. 55) Further in the book he described his outlook on life as without any hope, completely despondent. A despondency that flowed from seeing and understanding the workings of the powers that could change nations into prisons, and borders from instruments for protection into instruments of fear. But that also motivated him to dedicate his entire life to making what he saw visible for others too, in words. For if we do not understand, we might not be hopeless, but then we might be completely lost in the games that the forces around us try to play with our lives, and with our minds.

 

 

 

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, a nine hours long monument on the ‘extermination’ of the European Jews, from 1985, will be once more gaining attention, now that a documentary about its now 90 years old maker has been issued. Over the last few days I have been watching Shoah, where I saw its first part on television around 1990. The film is filled with important moments, one of those being the interview with Jan Karski, the Polish resistance member and later professor, who recounts his trips to the ghetto of Warsaw. Karski was asked to go and view with his own eyes what was happening, to report it to government leaders in Europe and the US. What he tries to make clear in his emotional statement is what the Jewish leaders who took him on the undercover trips told him – that the greatest difficulty in trying to do something about the mass killings was that it didn’t directly fit in the war strategies of the allied forces. They wanted to topple Hitler and end the Third Reich, but the killings, which were cleverly planned by the Nazis under the cover of the war, even after the allies received the reports from Karski, were not especially targeted during their attacks. karski recounts proposals which have been used in later times against oppressive regimes, such as retributive attacks and informing the German people – but none were used back then.

What Karski’s report also made clear to the viewers of “Shoah”, was the difficulty to speak about this mass murder which had no parallel in history. Although massive numbers of people had been killed in other times, and also in the same time under different pretexts, intentional industrial killing of an entire people did not happen on earth before. Factories of death – that’s what “Shoah” speaks about – also in the testimonies of those rare ‘Sonderkommando’s’ (Jewish prisoners forced to help around the gas chambers and crematoria) that survived their work. Another striking moment in the film is when one of them, Filip Müller, tells what working in that factory made him and his fellow workers realise: the meaning of human life. I understood his words as: beyond statistics, there is an infinite meaning to every individual life, in the sense that once it is destroyed, this is final. Something irreplacable disappeared from the world. He and others stress repeatedly the feeling of emptiness, of abandonment by the world in which they survived. They could go on only because they were made to understand the worth of life for themselves too.

Lanzmann’s work has of course been criticized from different sides, as any work on the holocaust has – due mainly to the difficulty those who study it face: to assess what happened, while having to rely heavily on eye-witness reports. This difficulty concerns not only the facts and figures, on which historians for some time will still have work to do. It concerns not only the historical understanding of the political forces that allowed this to happen – not only to the Jews as we know, but to all groups of people deemed less-than-human by Nazi-ideology: Roma, homosexuals, psychiatric patients, Africans and their descendants, among others. The primary difficulty in doing any work on the holocaust however might well be to understand what it means to be human, as Müller said it made him do, and in what ways industrial production of death attacks humanity.

To my view “Shoah” has done an awesome job to show this. Wittgenstein pointed to the difference between ‘sagen’ and ‘zeigen’. Some things can not be said, but need to be shown. Complete transparancy about facts and causes cannot garantuee that we ‘know’ what life, and death, is about. Lanzmann said later in an interview: ‘Shoah is not a film about survival. It is a film about death.’ He chose to differ from other movies and documentaries on the holocaust, which were increasingly being made in the time that he worked on his project – in that he neither focused on facts and figures, as in normal documentaries, nor on emotions, as the general holocaust movie will do. In the movie genre the viewer is made to identify with the protagonists, share their contructed feelings, and is left with either a sense of hope or one of despair at the end. “Shoah” follows neither genre. What it does is not so easily seen, but over the past days these thoughts came to me: while showing the different experiences of the survivors (victims, perpetrators and bystanders), without comments of the interviewer – combining them with long shots of the landscapes of guilt thirty years after the fact (the places of murder and those of Europe and America going on with business as usual) – Lanzmann makes us understand that this is important: listening to individual voices, unrestricted. Letting people speak unrestricted. This is not about transparance, or about getting the facts straight (although that might be a side effect). It is about accepting and caring about the diversity of voices speaking from the heart, from the body, from wherever life is present.

Murder is the attempt to silence life, to silence actual living beings as well as the diversity of their feelings and perceptions. Murder is the victory over the individual warm blooded living and thinking beings it kills, leaving the murderer with death on his hands and in his hands, all over her or him. It is the attack on the fragile community human beings make every day through their social, cultural and religious life. While making a film about death, Lanzmann did the incredible: proving that, even in the midst of its reign, traces of kindness and responsibility persisted – even whilst the heartless and mindless executioners ‘just did their jobs’. When I first saw a part of “Shoah” I was just impressed with the openness of those who told their story, because I grew up, like so many, in the years of silence. Our parents tried to go on with life and forget what had hurt them so deeply. Lanzmann got people to talk. Like Karski, who in the film first nearly cries and walks away from the camera, or like Abraham Bomba, the hairdresser who was forced to cut women’s hair before they were gassed, who says ‘I cannot do it’ when asked by Lanzmann to tell about his emotions back then. Now, so many years later I see beyond that miracle – of people starting to open up. I see the people who suffered themselves. Their unique lives and experiences. And my heart goes out to them.

This is only one of the possible articles I could write about viewing “Shoah”. There is much more to be said and thought after seeing it. About exclusion. Exile. Fleeing. Enduring. Confusion. History. Pain. Death. Another time perhaps.