At the Margins of Testimony
Edited by Nicholas Chare and Dominic Williams
Palgrave Macmillan – £58.00
Purgatory is represented by the Soviet Union’s labour camps, where neglect is combined with chaotic forced labour. Hell in the most literal sense was embodied by those types of camp perfected by the Nazis, in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment.
(Nikolaus Wachsmann, The Nazi Concentration Camps in International Context: Comparisons and Connections, Palgrave Macmillan).
Having recently watched the outstanding Hungarian epic, Son Of Saul (directed by Laszlo Nemes), which has since been nominated for countless awards – including Best Foreign Language Film 2016 – I was in a position, if only for a mini-micro second, to read this book with an iota of up to date sound and vision. Both aspects of which – for all their colourful, grainy, shouting-celluloid-hell of a living/breathing, Hieronymous Boschesque depiction of the end of the world – gave an inkling of understanding as to what it must have been like.
To have experienced the utterly incomprehensible, cruel degradation of a Nazi concentration camp.
And there is no better example of said incomprehension than Auschwitz. A two word syllable, whose international trajectory, continues to represent everything that was, and still is wrong with humanity. A diabolical syntheses of which is most coherently as well as magnificently touched upon throughout this outstanding book.
To be sure, Representing Auschwitz – At the Margins of Testimony addresses the aforesaid incomprehension of the Nazi regime in the Introduction, where the two editors Nicholas Chare and Dominic Williams immediately write: ”The boundary necessary for comprehension, or claiming, of the Holocaust experience, the scission between within and without, can only be instituted belatedly. It is necessary to establish a gap between within and without in the psyche of the individual survivor in order to mend the ‘the historical gap which the event created in the collective witnessing.”’
Upon reading the above, I am inclined to ask if such a mode of considered behaviour is even possible?
How can we, almost seventy-five years after the very implementation of the Final Solution, penetrate the ‘psyche of the individual survivor?’ Other than trying to come to some sort of terms with Holocaust literature and such brave, uncompromising film-making as Son Of Saul, all we can (fortunately) hope for, at best, is an inkling of empathy; which explains why these ten superlative essays are so very, very important.
As Professor Robert Eaglestone of the Royal Holloway, University of London states: ”This outstanding book has essays from not only the leading academics in the field (including perhaps the most important philosopher of history of our time, Hayden White) but also from leading writers in this area (Anne Karpf, Eva Hoffman). Each essay is a fantastic resource, tightly argued, full of revelation and information. More, the book is a model of interdisciplinary work, combining history, literary studies, film, gender theory, art and philosophy. It is also a timely and vital intervention in the development of Holocaust Studies.”
Indeed, all the essays in this book are as vital as each other.
Be it Dan Stone’s ‘The Harmony of Barbarism: Locating the Scrolls of Auschwitz in Holocaust Historiography,’ Sue Vice’s ‘Representing the Einsatzgruppen: The Outtakes of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Griselda Pollock’s ‘Art as Transport-Station of Trauma? Haunting Objects in the Works of Bracha Ettinger, Sarah Kofman and Chantal Akerman’ or Dominic Williams’ ‘The Dead Are My Teachers’: The Scrolls of Auschwitz in Jerome Rothenberg’s Khurbn.
The latter of which, perhaps in relation to having watched Nemes’ powerful depiction of the Sonderkommando, resonates all the more poignantly. Under the sub-heading ‘The Scrolls of Auschwitz, Williams’ quotes from a three-page narrative, written by Leib Langfuss, which accounts for part of Jerome Rothenberg’s Khurbn. It essentially ”tells the story of the last hours of 3,000 women dumped in the grounds of Crematorium 2 after being imprisoned and starved for a week […]. The words Rothenberg quotes are part of one girl’s reaction to a member of the Sonderkommando bursting into tears.
They examined our faces looking for an expression of sympathy. One stood in a corner and looked deep into the depths of these poor helpless souls. He could no longer control himself and burst out crying. A young girl then said ‘Ah! I have been privileged to see before I die an expression of sorrow, a tear of sympathy at our sad fate, in this camp of murderers, in which so many are tortured, beaten and killed, in which people see so many murders and interminable horrors, in the camp where our senses become dull and petrified at the sight of the worst horrors, where every human emotion dies to the extent that you can see your brother or sister fall and not even sigh. Yes, here, can there be a man who will feel our disaster who will weep for our fate? Oh! What a wonderful vision, how unnatural! The tear of a live Jew will go with me to my death, the sight of a sensitive man. There is still someone who will mourn us, [and I] had thought that we could leave this world like miserable orphans. I find a bit of comfort in this young man; among people who are all murderers and criminals, I have found before my death a man with feelings.”’
That a young girl’s fate has evolved into taking such (pathetic) comfort, does, in and of itself, depict a time in history where shame is too kind a word. Where redemption doesn’t even come into play. That any warmth, let alone description of feeling within the actual writing has clearly been nigh annihilated, speaks volumes. Again, more than substantiates why Representing Auschwitz – At the Margins of Testimony is such an unquestionably valuable book.
With the recent cease-fire in Aleppo having once again, come to absolutely nothing, perhaps publications such as this are all that we fundamentally have left – to remind us of our own unspeakable, yet nevertheless repeatable, folly.