Seventy years after Auschwitz

Nicholas Watts
Dec 2, 2016 · 8 min read
Image for post
Image for post

When the great Jewish-Italian chemist and writer who survived Auschwitz, Primo Levi, wrote in his memoir If This is a Man that Germans “love order, systems, bureaucracy; even more, although rough and irascible blockheads, they cherish an infantile delight in glittering, many-coloured objects”, he wasn’t simply roasting his captors. Order, systems, bureaucracy, and many-coloured objects are foundational elements of modern civilisation. Without them we wouldn’t have the technology that has shrunk the world, neither would we have our cherished political and philosophical systems that underpin how we live and what it means to live. Throughout his time in Auschwitz, Levi lived to an absurd, hysterical degree of enforced order. He was one of very few who did not die by the same order.

We returned our gaze to Auschwitz in January of this year to mark 70 years since its liberation by Soviet troops in the dying days of World War II.

In 1945, many of the camps had been demolished or abandoned, the remaining prisoners were killed and buried in mass graves, or marched until they died. Levi was strangely lucky. He had fallen sick with scarlet fever and was placed in the infirmary, the Ka-Be, for 40 days of isolation. The guards had fled, his best friend Alberto had bid him farewell and joined the exodus. Without the hierarchy and order of the guards, their meticulous systems of labour and extermination, the camp became a hostile wasteland. Levi’s earlier remark, “Today, in our times, hell must be like this”, felt ill-fitting — this was a hell from which the devil himself had flown, leaving behind a handful of broken, diseased survivors.

The regulations under which Levi was once kept were themselves an object of play to the guards and wardens — the violence inflicted upon a prisoner who should accidentally leave his hat on when entering his sleeping hut was as brutal as it was assured. The point was not that hats were forbidden to be worn inside the sleeping huts (why on earth would hats be forbidden in the sleeping huts?), the point was the expression of power; a rigorously applied system of order and discipline institutes itself, and must be repeated.

The intricate set of rules and codes that Levi learns as a worker of Auschwitz give the camp its own language, provide a key to the order. It is in this small rebellion that Levi’s memoir comes alive: the series of different names that deviate from the official camp names for huts and divisions, the coded marketplace that launders stolen goods, the reconfiguration of ordinary day-to-day objects into sacred, life-giving vessels (a spoon in Auschwitz is infinitely precious).

When this same order, together with the furious bureaucracy and array of sophisticated systems, both real and discursive, turns away from the keeping of the workers and to the extermination of the rest, a great chasm emerges. No one returns from the dead. No one who went into the gas chambers can come out and reveal to us its language, the truth of its horror, the way its system was internalised and understood, because the system leaves no survivors. Death brings us to an experience that cannot be communicated, an experience that cannot even be experienced. An orderly death, the industrialised murder of the extermination camps, is both trauma and impasse.

The experience of Auschwitz was not traumatic in the same way we express, even fetishise, modern trauma. It wasn’t a violent incident which comes to dominate our consciousness in waves of anxiety, it was the vision of an extinction event. “One learns quickly enough,” Levi writes, “to wipe out the past and future when one is forced to.” For prisoners of the camps, like Levi, a self-inflicted erasure was a way of surviving. For those who went into the gas chambers, the erasure was more literal. For entire families, for whole geographical regions of Jews who were wiped out, this wasn’t the end of a culture, it was the effacement of culture, it was the unfathomable ambition to return Europe to a time before the Jews existed. On such a scale, the Holocaust is apocalyptic. To one man, confined to his hut, with his broken shoes and his tenacious will to just survive, it was inexpressible: “Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.”

The limit of expression, the silencing effect of trauma, is the defining characteristic of Holocaust literature.

In remembering the Holocaust, it is vital to be confronted with these limits. It is easy to ritualise the commemoration of this great tragedy along familiar lines, to either isolate it from history as a single event, a product of the world’s great dictator, or to consign it to history as an especially bad instance of the infinitely recurring event of genocide. These two films, the epic Shoah, and the irreverent Night and Fog, can disrupt these familiar categorisations and challenge us to consider what extremes order, systems, and bureaucracy are capable of.

Night and Fog

Alain Resnais, 1955

Alain Resnais, a true master of cinema who is often grouped with the French New Wave, is best known for his two black and white meditations on romance and memory: Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a romance set in post-war Japan, and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a surreal, layered cycle of love and possibility. Before these two features, though, he made his debut with a short documentary about the Holocaust: Night and Fog.

In 1955, Resnais and his crew went into the Polish countryside and filmed scenes of the overgrown barbed wire and sleeping quarters of decaying concentration camps. This itself is a strange image: places like Auschwitz are either seen in archive footage as the site of ultimate horror, or in contemporary images as grey, sombre tourist attractions, rarely in this forgotten, half-buried state in muted shades of green, metres away from modern life. “Even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass,” Night and Fog’s narration opens, “even a resort village with a steeple and country fair can lead to a concentration camp.” He cut this picturesque footage together with archival material, some of it truly gruesome, into a very strange 32-minute documentary.

Where Schindler’s List is a vehicle for nine hours of sobbing and misery, Night and Fog is a sharp and brutal numbing. Its narration, written by Jean Cayrol, survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, is classically French — impressionistic, deeply characterised, irreverent — and almost resembles a monologue. It is a film that, against what would be considered good taste, expresses the profound and suffocating gravity of life in the concentration camps through moments of levity — there are jokes about crappy Nazi architecture, and in listing the camps’ terrible facilities, it contrasts the long, putrid toilet blocks with an enormous stuffed bear belonging to the SS, which it dubs, “a zoo”. The film has a jaunty, brooding Alfred Hitchcock–style soundtrack.

François Truffaut considered Night and Fog the greatest film ever made. Before its release, key members of its crew were confident it was too graphic, still too politically raw for the French to see, and that it would never be allowed to be shown. Over time it became a landmark of both cinema and French culture.

In 1990, one of France’s oldest Jewish cemeteries was desecrated in Carpentras, a small Provençal town. Over 30 tombstones were smashed. The body of an elderly man, Felix Germon, was exhumed, having only been buried two weeks beforehand. Germon’s body was impaled on an umbrella and a Star of David was carved into his stomach. Three days later, the French public, disgusted by the attacks, marched in Paris in support of France’s Jews, the largest street demonstration since Paris’s student protests of 1968. Night and Fog was chosen to be shown on all three national TV stations simultaneously in response to the attack.


Claude Lanzmann, 1985

To make a lm that not only tells the story of the Holocaust but embodies its great trauma is an impossible task. This reckoning with the impossible became the life’s work of Claude Lanzmann, a documentarian and French Jew, who interviewed survivors of the concentration camps, eyewitnesses and Nazi officers over the course of 10 years, to produce the nine-hour long Shoah. Lanzmann’s immense project is made to bear witness to the catastrophe — to be an archive of memories, a severe and tortured monument to humanity. It features no archival footage. We are guided around the ruins of concentration camps by returning survivors, visit Polish villages to interrogate those old enough to remember the trains full of starving Jews that rolled past their farms and houses. We visit the Jewish diaspora all over the globe, hearing their stories, slowly generating a comprehensive account of the Holocaust.

As a viewer it is a tremendously intimidating undertaking — some would say masochistic. A day of Holocaust stories is not everyone’s idea of good Sunday viewing. It’s not entertainment, it’s a challenge. As Shoah slowly unfolds, the question of responsibility creeps open, until by the end of its exhaustive, draining nine hours it is as though we have all become responsible. If not for the extermination itself, but the effective ways we have diminished its significance. It is a bulwark against erasure.

Shoah rewires how you see forests. One survivor is brought back to the site of the concentration camp from which he escaped as a young boy. As the orders were given to kill everyone in the camp, he was shot together with his family, but the bullet missed the vital parts of his brain. He awoke under a pile of corpses and loose dirt, and dug himself out before crawling through the mud to a nearby house. He revisits the mass grave years later, travelling by boat along the tranquil creek, retelling the story of his survival. The guards would treat him well, take him on boat rides because he would sing for them. Lanzmann asks him to sing some of the songs he once sang for the guards. Against the soft lapping of the water, the twittering of the birds, the broad innocence of nature, his deep song conveys an inexplicable tragedy. A little later, this time along an overgrown road, two survivors of a different concentration camp stand amid a beautiful, vivid green forest of very tall trees. These trees, they point out, were planted by the Germans to cover the graves they had just filled with bodies. Even after hours of recollections of great trauma from different survivors, this concealment, this rape of nature, feels like the height of transgression. This wonderfully alive forest is a cemetery, these trees are unwitting tombstones.

There are many more tragic stories like this. Lanzmann’s impossible project wields extraordinary power. You will start Shoah confused at what you’ve signed yourself up for. And after it finishes it will never leave you.

From Future Perfect Issue 3.

Future Perfect Magazine

A magazine for the socially and culturally enraged.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store