The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 267-272
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Who Owns Auschwitz? 1 - [PDF]
Translated by John MacKay
Holocaust survivors will have to face the facts: as they grow weaker with age, Auschwitz is slipping out of their hands. But to whom will it belong? Obviously, to the next generation, and to the one after that--as long as they continue to lay claim to it, of course.
There is something shockingly ambiguous about the jealous way in which survivors insist on their exclusive rights to the Holocaust as intellectual property, as though they'd come into possession of some great and unique secret; as though they were protecting some unheard-of treasure from decay and (especially) from willful damage. Only they are able to guard it from decay, through the strength of their memory. But how are they to respond to the damage wrought by others, to the Holocaust's appropriation by others, to all the falsifications and sundry manipulations, and above all to that most powerful of enemies, the passage of time itself? Furtive glances cling to every line of every book on the Holocaust, to every foot of every film where the Holocaust is mentioned. Is the representation plausible, the history exact? Did we really say that, feel that way? Is that really where the latrine stood, in precisely that corner of the barracks? Were the roll-calls, the hunger, the selections of victims really like that? And so on, and so on. . . . But why are we so keenly interested in all the embarrassing and painful details, rather than just trying to forget them all as soon as possible? It seems that, with the dying-away of the living sensation of the Holocaust, all the unimaginable pain and sorrow live on as a single, unified value--a value to which one not only clings more strongly than to any other, but which one will also see generally recognized and accepted.
And herein lies the ambiguity. For the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid. Thus we immediately got a stylization of the Holocaust, a stylization which has by now grown to nearly unbearable [End Page 267] dimensions. The word "Holocaust" is already a stylization, an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like "extermination camp" or "Final Solution." Nor should it come as any surprise, as more and more is said about the Holocaust, that its reality--the day to day reality of human extermination--increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable. In my Diary From the Galleys, I found myself compelled to write: "The concentration camp is imaginable only and exclusively as literature, never as reality. (Not even--or rather, least of all--when we have directly experienced it.)" 2 The drive to survive makes us accustomed to lying as long as possible about the murderous reality in which we are forced to hold our own, while the drive to remember seduces us into sneaking a certain complacent satisfaction into our reminiscences: the balsam of self-pity, the martyr's self-glorification. And as long as we let ourselves float on the lukewarm waves of belated solidarity (or the appearance of solidarity), we fail to hear the real question, always posed with trepidation but still audible, behind the phrases of the official eulogies: how should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?
I don't think that this question is inevitably posed on the basis of dishonest motives. Rather, it expresses a natural longing, and the survivors, indeed, long for nothing else. Nonetheless, the decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. But there are various ways of remembering. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps...