Thinking about the Holocaust I am reminded of Anish Kapoor’s Descension. At the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Kapoor installed a circular basin – sitting just two feet away from the river – filled with churning water. It is as if the river is rebelling, attempting to force its way into the park. This ferocious whirlpool leads the eye down in a spiral. In the original sculpture, the water was dyed black, creating the sense of a black hole sucking you down. For Kapoor, the swirling motion of the pool is obviously linked to Trump’s politics. True to its original intention, Kapoor’s whirlpool is representative of all kinds of despotic political regimes. The motion of swallowing you whole symbolic of their destructive nature.
I bring up this sculpture because, in an effort to remember past atrocities, societies have often turned to art. Although Kapoor never meant for Descension to be used to commemorate the Holocaust, for me, it is a sculpture that can encapsulate the vast terror of these events. Unlike other stagnant sculptures, Descension is alive, it continues to move, as do our memories as we listen to stories, and work out their meaning. The Whirlpool’s chasmic effect is then symbolic of my own attempts to comprehend the Holocaust. It is a moment that I can’t quite understand. That I can’t think my way through. Or, out of. When we talk about the Holocaust or more appropriately – the Sho’ah – we are, of course, talking about death. Looking into this swirling water, I am reminded of a past I did not live, but still seems so intrinsically bound up in my present. I am also reminded of the purpose of commemoration as a reflection on our current moment in history.
Many times I have asked myself what does the Holocaust have to do with me? Has this narrative been forced on me, or is it really part of who I am?
What can we learn from Holocaust memorialisation? And, should the Holocaust be used as an impetus for political mobilisation against racism?
Of course, growing up European and Jewish the Holocaust does have something to do with me. When I went to visit Holocaust memorials in Paris and outside of Amsterdam, there were large sections of the ‘letter S’ wall dedicated to Shaltiel’s (or Shealtiel’s) who were murdered. It is difficult to know what to make of this, what does it mean to remember these distant relatives I have never known? The purpose is surely to engage in empathy, to give a name and space to the victims of what Achille Mbembe has called the ‘shattering experience of otherness’ where the ‘politics of race is ultimately linked to the politics of death’.
Race and death. Mbembe decribes the Nazi regime as ‘the most complete example of a state exercising the right to kill’. Although this is helpful when we analyse violence as students, or scholars, these ideas are too vast to realise here. I must ground them again in the personal. My Paternal grandfather Paul was an Austrian Jew who escaped Nazi Vienna for South Africa just before the war, leaving his family and friends behind. Paul’s father was taken to Dachau and, although he was able to escape to America, he never recovered from his ordeal. Paul’s life in Austria was marked by antisemitism, affecting him in a profound way. Bearing witness to this legacy via oral traditions, my mother’s and aunt’s stories have taught me that antisemitism, like other racisms, is a lethal weapon whose effects are slow and long-lasting.
Because of this, in our current moment in history when violence towards minority groups is on the rise, I reach again towards the past, knowing that despite human’s remarkable tenacity, in many ways, violence and war leave no survivors. Jews – who were targeted particularly by the the Nazis for being demonic persecutors – and the other victims of the regime including LGBT+ people, Roma and Sinti people, and people of colour are not the only ones who live with this legacy today.
The perpetrators also attempt to move out of the shadow of violence. My partner is German and his grandfather was a Nazi soldier. From him, I have learnt that in Germany talking openly about Nazi soldiers returning from war with PTSD feels inappropriate. In my opinion, for Holocaust memorialisation to be truly cathartic, it is vital that we do include the perpetrator’s narrative.
In the political realm, a holistic understanding of conflict is a vital aim of peace and reconciliation processes. In Rwanda, efforts are being made to make an intervention into commemorative processes in order to bring to light the Hutu massacre after the Tutsi Genocide. It is only with a holistic understanding of genocide that we can use this day as a moment to talk about racism – what drives it and how to prevent it.
So, I return to my original questions: What can we learn from Holocaust memorialisation? And, should the Holocaust be used as an impetus for political mobilisation against racism?
To think through this I will now borrow my aunt Elli’s words, written for the ‘Brighton & Hove Stand up to Racism Holocaust Memorial event’ on the 30 of January. Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah is the rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.
“On Sunday, 27 January, on Holocaust Memorial Day itself … the News included the findings of a Holocaust Memorial Day Trust survey of 2000 UK adults. The research revealed that 5% do not believe that the Holocaust took place and one in 12 believe that its scale has been exaggerated. More education about the Sho’ah is essential. More empathy for the suffering of others is essential. A commitment to challenging the demonisation of others is essential. These are the threefold tasks of commemoration.
Jews are a remembering people. But remembrance is not an end in itself. The persecution of those considered ‘other’ was not – and is not – just a Nazi crime. All the genocides since the Sho’ah have targeted ‘others’ – those not considers to be ‘like us.’ And to this day the hatred of the other continues..
“It is vital that National Holocaust Memorial Day remains a date in the calendar of this country, enabling people to learn about the specificity of each case of genocide and to understand the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that make it possible for one group to target another and single them out for destruction.”
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Commemorations is ‘Torn From Home’. Today we must remember that racism and persecution, of all kinds, can lead to displacement.
“As we recall the tens of thousands of ‘lucky’ refugees, who were torn from their homes during the Nazi era, those who escaped, and the many millions, who were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices because they could not escape, let us commit ourselves to the task of helping those who were torn from their homes today […]
As any refugee or child or grandchild of a refugee will tell you, providing refuge to those in flight is the only way of ensuring their survival.”