Battle in Print: Magical memorials: authenticity, remembrance and the Holocaust

Angus Kennedy, 29 October 2010

The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Dr Piotr Cywiński, has co-founded a perpetual conservation fund to maintain the site as a ‘tangible reminder of what can happen if we fail to respond in a timely fashion.’ Auschwitz is a place where the ‘truth will always come to the surface’ (1). Former Auschwitz prisoner, Israel Gutman, claims that because there are ‘still people who claim the Holocaust never took place…Auschwitz must be preserved for as long as possible because it gives those people a chance to go there, to see the real gas chambers.’ (2)

Both attitudes exemplify the role the Auschwitz site is commonly asked to play. It’s to function as a constant warning from the past to the present about the possible return of the past in the future. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum sees the Holocaust providing ‘a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, the need for vigilance.’ It possesses a ‘unique power and authenticity’ to engender ‘moral responsibility among our citizens’. It ‘could happen again anywhere and at any time.’

Prophylactic magic

The key danger warned against here is the supposedly ever present possibility of indifference, of standing by in the face of evil. The reality of this possibility relies on - even actively demands – the idea that human nature is prone to indifference about the suffering of our fellows. It assumes a humanity prone to inhumanity.

This is a cyclical view of history, which collapses the difference between past and present. It insists on the continued relevance of the past, the power of the Holocaust to teach us about the evils of racism and bullying, of the potential Eichmanns within us all. Such a view places a moral requirement upon us to keep history real. It almost has to be better than real. Under Cywiński’s direction, the Auschwitz museum conservationists have ‘invited school children to help clean and polish’ some of its 80,000 shoes. (2)

A recent book by American feminist sociologist, Janet Jacobs, Memorialising The Holocaust, is also concerned that memorial sites ‘sustain a dignified memory’. For her, in a sense, the memorial is more important than the historical reality. From the perspective that the past makes sense only in terms of its ability to speak to the present, she is even able to write: ‘Sites such as Auschwitz…bring a realism and authenticity to the memorial space.’ (3) Remembrance here precedes the historical event, as a way of warding off the possible return of the event in the future.

Jacobs feels free to pick and choose memorial sites more or less suited to this role, more or less possessed of this prophylactic magic (her word for magic is ‘authenticity’). Thus, while ‘Auschwitz is perhaps the best-known and most frequently visited concentration camp museum and memorial, Majdanek is the more historically authentic.’ There, the ‘geography of remembrance… seems untouched by the passage of history and the intervention of time.’ Despite the surrounding ‘high-rise apartment buildings’ - something one might imagine as impinging on a sense of ‘authenticity’ - Majdanek transports one ‘to another time and place where the reality of genocide immediately assaults the senses, as smells of dust and aging leather converge to create a memory of ethnic crimes.’ Has she stepped into a magical time-machine in which then becomes now?

And, in which (such are always the perils of magic), observer risks becoming participant. Jacobs is shaken by her dual identity as both a Jewish woman and a social scientist of the Holocaust. As she ‘looks to the past to explain the present’ she becomes a bystander, ‘vulnerable to the emotional strains of witnessing catastrophe within the context of scholarly research.’ As a ‘secondary witness’, photographing photographs originally taken by the Nazis to document torture, she fears her research ‘replicates the acts of the perpetrators’. Looking at pictures of women about to be executed, she feels the touch of death and murder, placed in the position of the executioner, repeating his gaze.

The true name

There is, however, a difference between cameramen and riflemen that we should take care to uphold. If only in the interests of sanity. There is a difference between representation and reality too. In the world of magical memory though, such differences are elided. The Nazis sought to keep the reality of their crimes secret by severely prohibiting the taking of photographs in the camps. They sought to erase the reality of their crimes by destroying those photographs the SS had taken in Auschwitz. The only photographic evidence we have of the actual killing process itself at Auschwitz (Footnote 1) are four pictures taken secretly in 1944 by the Polish resistance: showing shadowy images of women undressing and the Sonderkommando at work incinerating bodies. (4) The liberating Allies, by contrast, gave free rein to photo-journalists like Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller to record what they found in the camps and ensured the images were widely disseminated in the press.

It’s sadly ironic that Jacobs looks to repeat the Nazi’s sensitivity to the existence of a photographic record of the Holocaust. Fearful of replicating their acts, she prefers ‘narrative and description, rather than the photographic images of the victims, to convey the brutalized memory of their suffering.’ When forced to show us figurative examples she chooses sculpture and visual text, precisely because these are ‘one step removed from realism’.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is also worried the reality of the Holocaust might be too shocking. Whilst ‘there is a wealth of photographic and video evidence of atrocities committed, it is important to remember that you must never dehumanise the victims. Images of corpses and open graves in particular should be avoided.’ (5) The idea it’s possible to dehumanize the dead only makes sense in the context where we believe the dead somehow continue to live. They have ‘untold stories’ still to tell us, which is the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2011. Great emphasis is placed on the power of survivor testimony, individual narratives and even individual objects to touch and move us appropriately. They are supposed to bring us a lesson of hope from the past for tomorrow.

The Holocaust Educational Trust argues it’s ‘imperative that students are encouraged to focus on the testimonies of individuals or the names of individual victims.’ Visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are given the identity of a random victim or survivor to assume during their visit: a magical talisman opening a door to the past. Knowing real names is, as Harry Potter fans will also be aware, key in the business of magic. With the true name of something you gain power over it. In this case the power to avert the return of the past.

History in the real world

Back in the real world, the business of history is not a matter of chanting lists of names, invoking ghostly voices from the past to utter warnings to the present. It’s a matter of looking at the evidence and deciding which of the infinite number of facts available are historical facts. That is, facts that fit an interpretation an historian makes of the past. The interpretation both makes sense of and ‘explains the facts. It is a process that requires rational analysis of evidence, drawing out what is general from the unique.

The past remains irredeemably distant, complex and other; not a continually relevant source of moral lessons. Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, rejects the idea his survival made him the bearer of a message, reflecting that ‘we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses…we survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom.’ (6)

But this is not to say that we cannot seek to understand or learn from the lessons of history. Just that history first requires a critical engagement with the contradictions and complexity of the past before it can offer lessons to us. And that really is something we should never forget.


Angus Kennedy, head of external relations, Institute of Ideas; chair, IoI Economy Forum


(1) As opposed to the series of photographs taken of the arrival of Hungarian Jews in 1944 which show the selection and sorting process but not actual killing.


(1) Preserving the ‘Factory of Death, Niels Kraaier, Open Democracy, 26 October 2010
(2) Workers in fight against time to save remains of Auschwitz, Haaretz, 31 January 2007
(3) Janet Jacobs (2010). Memorialising the Holocaust: gender, genocide and collective memory, London: I.B. Tauris
(4) Georges Didi-Huberman, (2008). Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
(6) Primo Levi (1989). The Drowned and the Saved, Londnon Abacus, pp.63-64

Festival Buzz

View: 'Turn That Racket Off'

"What makes these sessions much more stimulating than most seminars is the sharp, often challenging contributions from the audience so that you have a real debate, not just a platform presentation."
Richard Donkin, independent journalist and author