Imagining the unimaginable

The Nazi concentration camp known as Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British and Canadian troops on 15 April 1945. Queen Elizabeth II of England visited the site in June 2015.

More than 70,000 people were killed at Bergen-Belsen or died later as a result of their incarceration. Among them was the Dutch teenager Anne Frank, whose diary was first published in Dutch in 1947, and the Czech painter Josef Čapek, brother of the science fiction author Karel Čapek. The names of more than half the victims are unknown.

During her visit, Queen Elizabeth met the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a former inmate whose book, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945, concludes, “Words can never convey the abomination that took place in the name of cleansing the human race. My story has a happy ending, unlike that of millions of others whose existence was obliterated. There are no graves to testify that they ever did exist. Their stories will never be told.”

Afterwards, the Queen commented, “It’s difficult to imagine isn’t it?” – words that understate the difficulty of imagining the unimaginable. The mind baulks at atrocities on the scale of genocide and at the hollowness of the post-Holocaust claim “never again” in the light of subsequent events in countries such as Guatemala, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda, Sudan. Yet, witnesses, painstaking forensic research, museums of memory, astonishing documentaries, a handful of good films (among considerable dross) and, inevitably, the ever diminishing voices of survivors contradict those who deny the reality.

Horst-Wegener-Buchenwald-MemorialMemorialisation of the Holocaust has tended to focus on the death camps in Germany and Poland and, consequently, on the depravity of the crimes committed there. The symbolism of German artist Horst Wegener’s Buchenwald Memorial is immediately recognisable. But if imagination is not to fail, a broader view both geographically and socially is required. For example, nearly every country in Europe was tainted by anti-Semitism and the seeds of the Holocaust can be found in early 20th century pogroms in Russia and Romania. Immediately after the First World War, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in the western Ukraine, with more killings in Hungary. In Germany itself, between 1922 and 1933, countless desecrations of Jewish graves took place in Nuremberg alone, where in 1923 the first anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, was published.

In Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Lithuania, as well as France and Italy, governments and citizens willingly assisted in the oppression of Jews and non-Jews, directly and indirectly condoning the seizure of goods and property and, worse still, the killings. Thousands of ordinary people played a role in what led up to the Holocaust.

One country was defiant. In 1943 the demand for the deportation of the 49,000 Jews of Bulgaria was resisted by the King, Parliament, intellectuals, and farmers. The Archimandrite Cyril, and the Papal Nuncio in Turkey (Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII) protested strongly against the deportation order. Miraculously, no Bulgarian Jews were deported to the gas chambers and Bulgaria was the only country under German influence or control whose Jewish population actually increased during the war years.

Imagining the unimaginable means believing that what happened in the past can happen again and that governments and people are capable of turning a blind eye to the racism and despotism that lead to internment camps and worse. Primo Levi made this abundantly clear in the “Afterword” to the English edition of If This Is A Man and The Truce (1987), and his warning resonates today:

“A new Fascism, with its trail of intolerance and abuse, and of servitude, can be born outside our country and be imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names, or it can loose itself from within with such violence that it routs all defenses. At that point, wise counsel no longer serves, and one must find the strength to resist. Even in this contingency, the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago, can serve as support and warning.”

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