The 27th of January marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and around the world people paid respect to the victims of the the Holocaust. In December, managing editor Megan Manion and senior editor Rachel Salcedo traveled to Poland and here offer some reflections on their visit to sites of Holocaust remembrance:
Poland in December likely wouldn’t strike most people as a desirable travel destination, but for us the dark, cold, and snow felt somehow fitting for what we had planned to be a decidedly sombre experience. We visited a number of memorials throughout the country—most notably, Auschwitz-Birkenau—as we sought to think through the vastly complex and layered histories of multiple occupations, mass atrocity, and the building of a national collective memory. As scholars of transitional justice, we were interested in understanding the praxis and politics of memorializing violence that occurs at such a large scale.
After suffering under the profound violence of German occupation, Poland was given little respite before Soviet occupation began, so remembering the damage of the Holocaust became caught up in the unfolding trauma of totalitarian repression. Thus, we considered the politics of identity in conflict settings and the narration of those identities in post-conflict reconstruction. We also contemplated what it means to memorialize certain instances of violence in lieu or at the expense of others. Below, we consider the politics of memorialization and the challenges of narrating a cohesive national memory that conflicts with the complexity of survivors’ realities.
What does it mean to be a memorial?
A memorial takes many forms, and largely depends upon who is doing the memorializing as much as what they are attempting to remember. A critical feature of memorials is that they engage the spectator in the experience of their subjects. Memorializing should be understood as an active process narrating an experience of violence; thus a site of that experience must be understood, at least in part, to be about evoking a response.
One of the key ways Auschwitz-Birkenau is effective in this regard derives from allowing visitors to live its history, standing where victims stood and imagining themselves amongst the prisoners. It is so difficult to fully understand how quickly and how brutally people lost their lives in extermination camps, particularly when today we are inundated with images of the Second World War and partly-fictionalized imaginings of what it was like for those who suffered in concentration camps. In reality, however, these images pale in comparison to what one is able to imagine when standing along the tracks leading to Birkenau’s gas chambers or in cells where prisoners were made to sleep eight to a bed, stacked on top of one another three bunks high.
Walking along these tracks toward the ruins of gas chambers that Nazi authorities destroyed before the camps were liberated, we imagined the racing thoughts that might have crossed a young mother’s mind as she made the same short walk seventy years ago: would she have been relieved by her decision not to be separated from her child? Would she realize that this decision sealed her fate, and that if she’d let an elderly woman take the baby she might have been allowed to live? Or would she be too tired and worn down and disoriented to have these thoughts, to be fearful anymore?
As the memorial stands, it demonstrates the damage of the Nazi regime and the evil contained in the camps by clearly showing the harm done to all groups targeted. In functioning as a museum, however, the site literally narrates the experience of a victim as they moved through the camp and the overall experience of those targeted by the Nazis. In this way, the amount of information presented to guests means that at times Auschwitz-Birkenau struggles as a site of memory: space for memorializing the victims is often truncated by the memory of what was done to them.
We felt this conflict through much of the camp, most palpably in the buildings that once housed prisoners at Auschwitz and which today display victims’ possessions. Walking along halls that contain thousands and thousands of shoes, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, looking almost as if they had been thrown into the display, our attention was drawn to the few dainty heels and sandals that lie alone toward the front. Another room offers the same organization of eyeglasses, another contains pots and pans, another suitcases—all labeled as though they might be reunited with their owners.
Another room contains orphaned prosthetics and crutches, another still is filled with hairbrushes and shaving materials. But none of these displays compare to the dimly lit room filled with a mountain of actual human hair, matted and tangled together so you can’t quite tell the hair color or type; in fact you don’t immediately identify the mountain as hair at all, in part because it is difficult to accept the reality that you are looking at. This literal dehumanization of victims in order to illustrate the dehumanization that occured at the hands of the Nazis acts at some points to overpower the individuals that were there.
Why is remembering different than memorializing?
Personal and public memory play different roles in post-conflict communities, and with those roles come particular politics. Remembering is a personal process of naming what someone has survived. To remember, one must engage in a performance of that trauma in order to take ownership of one’s narrative, body and agency. Engaging personally reimagines what it means to be a victim, and indeed, a survivor.
In the words of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, jailed by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self” (89). Personal memory—a survivor remembering what was done to them, or a perpetrator remembering what they did—establishes a socially liminal site at which healing is presumed to begin. Remembering then can be understood as distinct from memorializing, in that remembering atrocity allows someone to grieve and mourn harm done to them, while memorializing serves to create a publicly meaningful truth of what happened to others.
It is of note, then, that Auschwitz-Birkenau attempts to narrate the objective truth of WWII by identifying the victims who exist outside of public meaning. As the text throughout the camp and our guide articulated, though Jews were targeted most in number and were most prevalent in Nazi documentation, others also lost their lives and their freedom. Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and prisoners of war were targeted alongside Jews: Nazis stole their property, their dignity, and their humanity before murdering them. In a way that seems to controvert public narratives, Auschwitz-Birkenau made explicit reference to these victims who also lost their lives, but are pushed to the margins of memory and memorial.
Where do we locate a person’s humanity?
This question is a central one that drew us to work in human rights and transitional justice in the first place. A critical factor of understanding atrocity and conflict is unpacking profound questions of what gives someone the right not to be brutalized, what is right and just in war and politics, and ultimately, what makes us human and why. But the politics of identity are a very real framework through which we individually and collectively identify who has the right to be; however, this approach risks being reductive and may distract from the lived reality of mass atrocity for victims and perpetrators.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we struggled to comprehend what it must have felt like for victims who lived and died there. But we also considered the experience on the other side of the fence. What must it have been like for the Nazis, what makes someone comfortable with such cruelty? It should be noted that, according to our guide at the camp, Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps throughout Poland had to request placement there; thus, we must argue against common narratives of complicity—camp authorities and operators perpetrated atrocity with measured intent and even enthusiasm. How was cruelty and hatred so effectively and efficiently weaponized?
At least one explanation is derived from the politics of establishing the ideal enemy. The millions of people who counted as the enemy were subjected to unbelievable cruelty and violence because they were treated as if they were not human. Where the enemy is not even human, violence against them is allowed and, more importantly, just.
Reflecting on the memorialization of these events, as well as the events themselves, feels especially urgent at this moment in history. As we see a surge of right wing leadership globally, as well as a rise in nationalism and xenophobia overall, it is important for us to consider the narratives we have constructed through memorials of the Holocaust in order to prevent us from going down a similar path. If we really mean it when we say “never again”, then we must begin to have more open conversations about our histories, and our performance of public and private memory surrounding atrocities—we hope that this can be a starting point.
Photo Credits: Rachel Salcedo