Dignity for the exploited, the hounded, the paperless, the Other

Month: December, 2014

The Holocaust Museum: a visit


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum impresses first with its architecture, with the deliberate industrial appearance contriving an absence of human warmth. Entrance is gratis and the location impeccable. There is copious material on offer, but the primary subject matter could have been treated in a superior fashion, in a manner more befitting our times.

For instance, Heinrich Heine is quoted – the bit about where one burns books, there will be people burnt – even though he was not opining about the Weimar Republic. With what justification is he then chosen? He is described as being German and Jewish, both of which appellations obscure some key facts – his settling (permanent emigration to?) in France, and his conversion to Christianity; but to choose an intellectual because he is (or was) Jewish is not far from not choosing someone because they are Jewish.

Flags of the countries which liberated Nazi concentration camps are hung up, in the grand manner: an anachronistic homage to the nationalistic ideal. Some of those flags represent regimes which discriminated against their own citizens on the basis of racial theory, not very unlike the architects of the Final Solution (USA, this is pre-1964); which invaded, occupied and exploited other countries and peoples (“war of aggression” to use Nuremberg-trial language; British, Russian and French); which had their own network of prison camps with near-arbitrary sentencing and conditions worse than in the Reich (USSR; if we believe the likes of Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn). All this glorification contributes to strengthening a dangerous narrative – that whole nations are good or evil, and absolves the victors of wrong-doing.

It affirms a high-ranking Nazi’s (Hermann Göring’s?) cynical observation that “…our greatest war-crime is that we lost the war.” What lesson do we give to current and future rulers? That if you cannot destroy the enemy, make sure you get rid of the damning evidence of torture, abuse, murder and genocide; think the whole process through, avoiding the errors of the amateurish SS who often had to go back to their victims’ graves and obliterate bodies? But mostly, win – at any cost.

Some aspects which are excluded or only superficially touched upon are:

– The tradition of European and global anti-semitism, perhaps covering Martin Luther, the Spanish expulsion, Richard Wagner, Emil Zola and the Dreyfus affair, et cetera.

– The inception and death of the Weimar Republic and the role played by the terms of the ceasefire at the end of WW1.

– The etymology of the term ‘Holocaust’, and the deaths, peoples and time periods to which it refers, and those which it excludes.

-The pogroms in Europe in the immediate aftermath of WW2.

– The impact of the Holocaust on world politics, including especially related thinking in Germany and Israel, and Holocaust denial legislation.

Photographs are disallowed – without explanation. Perhaps it is because they wish to protect intellectual property, but that would conflict with what is presumably one of their goals – of spreading awareness. Also, a museum on genocide must necessarily differ from, say, an art museum, in terms of the replaceability of its exhibits. A Van Gogh cannot be replaced, but a model of a gas chamber, or a photographic print showing the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is easily reproducible. On display at the USHMM too, there are few “original” pieces.

In a space meant for reflection, the Bible is prominently quoted, to the exclusion of other religions, for instance. This preference is a tad surprising, both because it jars with the secular, humanist tradition one usually associates with museums, and also because this particular museum seeks to commemorate those who were persecuted because of their being different. In any case, not all who died in the gas chambers were believing Jews or Christians.

Perhaps the two most poignant parts of the museum are the train carriage one is forced to walk through, and the survivors’ video testimony – there we are beyond intellectual analysis.

Encouragingly, the institution purports to survey world affairs to identify and highlight instances of ongoing or potential genocide. It does not, however, articulate its criteria for what might constitute genocide. From the paucity of information on mass killings that unfortunately mark our age, and on the concentration camps and other ghetto-like areas that our conscience permits to exist, one may conclude that some bias, some undisclosed screening, exists.

All said and done, this monument to one genocide out of many plays an important role, but not particularly well. It does not clearly and unequivocally affirm the right to human dignity, personal liberty, and nominal equality for every single human being, irrespective of religion, ethnicity or nationality, and for the right of communities and languages to exist.


Obnoxious pits and invisible walls: a call for solidarity

This is a picture of a stranger. Standing chest deep in vile slime, naked but for cheap, loose fabric covering the groin, the noxious vapors almost overpowering the nasal sense, with sharp iron bars protruding from the sides of the pit, he is commissioned to clear the flow of sewage using his bare hands and perhaps a rude tool. Neither cruelty nor retribution is intended – the activity depicted is quite normal, as evidenced by the others in the frame going about their quotidian business.

How does this modern scene from the capital city of a nominally free democracy compare to a similar one from one of Hitler’s so-called education camps of the twentieth century? Eugen Kogon describes how the heirs to the throne of Austria-Hungary every day ferried primitive carts filled to the brim with human excrement. It must have splashed, it must have stank, they probably had no gloves – yet the brothers, members of the highest European aristocracy, performed their mean task ‘as if they had been doing it their entire lives’.

We can scarcely blame the royal princes, nor the bare-chested young man. The human survival instinct directs adaptation, and often, if not always, barters away even the most cherished values for a few more hours of existence of the self and loved ones. Examples of both steadfastness as well as capitulation in extreme circumstances, while worthy of respect or moving, are of little use as a basis for prescribing ethical behavior, as we are not really free when in extreme circumstances. However, perhaps there is value in reminding ourselves that extreme circumstances do exist.

An SS concentration camp with a guarded perimeter – hateful Lager – is a terrible construct, but far, far worse is the Lager without tangible walls. Evidence suggests that societies around the world even today are riddled with such open camps, where denizens have to submerge themselves in feces, as in our picture, or are mishandled by policemen, bombed by drones, shut up in dingy rooms, buried by the collapse of unsafe buildings, exposed to the elements, starved of food, given contaminated water, denied medical assistance, excluded from housing, segregated, discriminated against in terms of price and access to services, humiliated and exploited. Membership is decided on the basis of their nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity, caste, sexuality, material wealth, disability, language, accent, political opinion, age, health, ignorance of rights, or physical appearance. Almost paradoxically, these Gulags-without-walls-or-overseers often coexist with regions of intellectual honesty, nominal equality, wasteful luxury and strong sympathy.

Let us return to feces-man and quote Jules Verne:

“Cet Indien, monsieur le professeur, c’est un habitant du pays de opprimés, et je suis encore, et, jusqu’à mon dernier souffle, je serai de ce pays-là!”

(“This Indian is an inhabitant of an oppressed land, and I stand, and shall do so until my last breath, as one of them!”)

Written in the nineteenth century, Verne’s words have little to with this particular Indian – but nothing prevents us from extrapolating their spirit, for we are concerned with the right of every single human being to live with dignity, in freedom, and with access to justice. Lenin, the intellectual with the neat beard, who countenanced a few dozen murders to hasten the workers’ paradise which, when it came about, was not a little blemished by slave camps, police arbitrariness, and an incongruous ban on strikes, once famously asked, “What is to be done?” Our answer is “Probably much”, but also to:

Allow that wishing things to stay the same might be an abomination;

Tolerate poor etiquette in those attempting to escape such invisible chains;

Examine calls for allegiance based on divisions such as nationality, religion, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, wealth, or caste, in case it leads to the oppression of those excluded.

While we grapple with turning away from the long-sanctified themes of nationalism, favoring co-religionists, discriminating against people with the wrong skin color, or the wrong language, let us remember that the gentleman in the picture is still alive. Not for long, of course, for the acerbic fluids must eat into his dark skin, and daily degradation probably saps the will to survive. Perhaps he shall yet break out of his unbounded prison, for public opinion is slowly being mobilized – but for the general case, as in this appeal. Neither the photographer nor the wretched subject himself has been compensated for the reproduction of the image, nor their permission solicited. This law we shall with impunity break, this assault on privacy condone – if it only helps to bring about a slightly more just world. In any case, this is a picture of us.