Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do



- in gratitude of Teresa with whom I visited Auschwitz -


For the Auschwitz memorial day

when liberated on 27.1.1945

- in gratitude of Teresa with whom I visited Auschwitz -


Silence. Words cannot speak. They are alone. No one comes to explain why. It is just so dreadful. The eyes run along fences and then back to those towers. Watching that people do not run away as they unload themselves from the trains that end here, trains that came from everywhere lead to nowhere. Destruction is not the final hell. It is the dripping water from not the well but a moist wall as if human sweat out of fear has gathered there. Unnoticed history. There are the grim photos of the children brought in from Hungary. They are captured not only by a front and a side view, but there is a third take as if the Concentration Camp has ordered them to show their most innocent faces and smiles and eyes. It hits at you. What if your own daughter would end up like this? Silence again. The thoughts take on forms of ever lasting sounds of dripping water. The fall is deep, as deep as the silent screams inside of you, when you look at the horror, at the abyss of human beings being pushed to death by other human beings. How is it possible that no one intervenes? How is it possible that it could happen? Some sick feeling spills up rests of forgotten food. It is re-chewed like a cow does: over and again the message is the same.

Jean Amery had said it: to survive in Auschwitz was almost the same as the soldiers of the Wehrmacht for both were exposed to the command – Befehl – to survive: the ones by not touching the electrical fences, the others by shooting faster than their enemies. This symmetry in survival was meant by Jean Amery some kind of redemption that was not granted to him in post War Germany and, therefore, driven to suicide by fanatics. They would not believe his words unless he did it himself. Actions and words are intersecting in this dilemma so long until the human being is pitted against not bulldogs, but electrical fences and against the ‘self’ having to resist to give up life without any interval of dignity.

Carlos Fuentes describes it well in ‘Skin Exchange’: Eichmann lets the Jewish orchestra play in Theresienstadt during their last evening prior to their departure for Auschwitz Verdi’s Requiem. It was that kind of joke that was played in between the intervals of a first violin resounding and straining the ears to listen for some other messages coming in, but in the audience there sat silently the former lover and friend, but now the famous (but who wishes recognition from Hitler and the Fascists?) architect of Theresienstadt and who did not reveal himself to her afterwards, even though he had followed her back to the rooms with the multileveled bunk-beds. He saw her being pregnant and thus left without having revealed his presence. He let both of them go to certain death.

Indeed, so many shouts ‘is they’re nobody who cares about our common life’ went unheeded. Unanswered. Silently many went. Many wept inside, but showed brave faces. Crowded into the final room of destination. Since then they are gone.

Countless exhibitions, museums, photos, films like Shoa have been attempting the impossible: to come to terms with Auschwitz. As metaphor for all the concentration camps it has had an impact upon poetry, or at least Adorno would say ‘no more poetry after Auschwitz’. Here Paul Celan with his ‘nobody’ tried to contradict, but he too failed to convince Adorno. They failed even to meet although it had been planned. A little history of disappointment after the war and the Holocaust had been survived ‘more or less’, but that was all.

It is this ‘more or less’ that marks the fine difference. Bill Wenders had relatives who perished in Auschwitz but he said of himself, that he had a good life and that one-day it would end. He was sure that he would end it in dignity. Others did not make it. Not Jean Amery. Not Paul Celan.

Lately poets are again becoming silent like the birds before the wars start again. Brendan Kennelly refers to poets feeling the impact of the 11th of September.

When everything has been said and despite the killing commences once again, then images fly past and do not return. It is cold in the room. It is empty in the streets. Glances from a bare window without curtain down to the street just empties itself into the fear when will they come to fetch me as well?

Who has the power or the addiction of power that gives someone the illusion that fetching someone away to another destiny that this could shape man’s destiny positively? What dangerous illusions are those? What does this empty power claim of being capable of? Nothing. Everything and nothing can be answered by power. Only man alone, especially when confronted by the questions of life and death, can forestall power from intervening. No wonder then that power does not forgive those who try to do so without recourse to any power. Simple tunes whistled: Rosa Luxembourg in jail writing letters. They are accompanied by freedoms of thoughts about linguistics when Gramsci wrote. Who knows how many more wrote and spoke and listened before being fetched away? But no, no one has the right to take anyone away: not women, not men, not children. Everyone has a right to finding themselves in freedom their own destiny. It is up to all of us to give to everyone that freedom to face with all the human courage the questions of life alone, in all honesty. No soldier, policeman or anyone else has the right to take someone away, to another destiny. But when it happens, it is already too late to intervene.

After Auschwitz we know: no one intervened. The teachers did not, nor the parents nor the friends nor the words in books nor the priests in the church nor the neighbors nor the chickens and dogs in the yard.

It is all so still.

Michael D. Higgins remembers how he ran bare footed to school gladly to hear his teacher because he took always the class out of the room and up on a hill rising behind the school to teach them an overview long before the holistic method had been discovered. Is that a clue? Have we forgotten to teach in such a way as to point out how life is connected to what is worthwhile living and not at all worthwhile dying for?

Remarkable are the heroes; remarkable is the manipulation that goes into this drama of life and death on battlefields. Certainly the German soldiers were driven by this dictum ‘to become a human being you must be able to fight, but before you do begin that fight, you must prepare yourself well enough, that is arm yourself and then provoke that fight for otherwise it will not come’. That is the reasoning of Heidegger at the end of his book ‘Time and Being’. His philosophy justifies the armament race and the picking a fight to pose the real question of the human being for otherwise that human being would remain invisible, unknown to the self, the soul and the psyche. His philosophy fitted well to Hitler’s slogan, ‘a human being is only that being which fights’. It is worthwhile noting that in the film Shoa there is a scene in which German soldiers watch Jews digging their own graves. As they look on, one German soldier comments in knowing what they will face soon afterwards, ‘but they do not fight, ergo, they do not deserve to live’.

It is amazing what justifications; no contortions of truths are made up, to do evil. Israel had the Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt spoke about the ‘banality of the evil’ in face of an ideology that is more totalitarian than all kinds of dictatorships put together.

Back in Auschwitz the woman guiding us through the rooms, the corridors inside and outside the shacks, said afterwards, ‘nowadays too many human rights are still being violated despite Auschwitz; consequently the museum has failed in its function to instill in people the thought and the motivation of never again’.

That failure of Auschwitz goes beyond words. Even if evoked as metaphor in a contemporary setting, it does not work. This is not because Auschwitz is unique, but because it stands for the human failure to stand up and to intervene on behalf of the human being, on behalf of life as being sacred to each and to all of us, so as to avoid further injustices being inflicting still anew and harder and much emptier than what had already been the case in Auschwitz. There human pain was piled upon others and oneself.

The old Biblical saying, ‘do not do that to others what you would not do onto yourself’ has no meaning. What has some meaning is ‘do no Auschwitz upon others even if you have felt the suffrage of those who perished in Auschwitz yourself’. For it is true that those who suffered in real terms speak always in the interest of redemption and those who do not know and who refuse to enter that dialog with human pain, they are the first to call for revenge, in a wish to cause human suffrage in the other, as if creating pain is a way to start not a dialogue but a way to be understood ‘finally’ by the others. How wrong, how empty, how sad, how illogical is such a search for self-understanding, for then words are not spoken in the direction of the others but for the sake of power inflicting once again senseless pain. Where has all the wisdom gone?

Long ago, it was in Uruguay, someone had flung a stone and broke the glass. Sartre calls it the breaking into the present that until now has shut out those wishing to live, but were prevented by all kinds of circumstances to do so – for what is a more terrible prison than being banished from the presence of the self, from the presence of others as a time only available here and now in order to live, to breathe and to continue with the others in pursuit of a happy life.

The authorities take this to mean an absolute challenge to whatever power they may conceive to have as long as they can keep everyone out of the present, for these authorities fear that moment most. It would mean people could come together, talk, laugh together, clap their hands on each other’s shoulders, offer drinks, cigarettes, even show each other photos of secret loves and not so strong but official loves. For the intermingling of people by themselves is freedom, the freedom to live, to unite and to dissolve, is the present.

No, power wants people to be separated, outside the present tense of the word life and have them control each other according to the typologies of fear and conflict, of who is an enemy, who is a friend. Thus what happened then in Uruguay was that the police came and then in a poem there was found that simple expression: ‘and humanity is about to bleed again’.

The terrible truth of Auschwitz is that this absolute negation of the present tense of life meant a silence was no longer just the wall, nor the criminals inside the prison’s quarters with their own privileges and single rooms and thus bribed into becoming watchman over the Jews, but the breakdown of any ‘otherness’. The sameness meant no longer any delineation between friend and enemy was possible. It was the reconstruction of death as an inability to end the dependency upon fight in order to live. A riddle? Perhaps life as a beautiful wonder was no longer there and instead the mythology of heroes, power and all other traps of being famous managed to silence the people.

Against that stood out alone the silence of those going into the concentrations camps but without pleading for mercy, that is upright and true to themselves. By so doing they answered the negation of life through the need to fight in their own non-violent way. Active silence was the only form of resistance by the Jewish people. Then it meant to them that they were not victims, but well above this reduction of being victims as if merely helpless. In what they wished to convey to the future generations is this: in their stoic sense of uprightness they upheld resistance as affirmation of life. They upheld this until the very end and thereby overcame all the negation efforts of a Hitler and his whimsical followers seeking the once and for all ‘end solution’. Instead they live on in the memories of those who trust life in an uprightness way. It is expressed perhaps best by Elytis in his poem ‘Axion Esti’ – to be praised: for the officer who shots the Greek who does not step forward and thereby disobeys, he does not realize that his life ends there while the life of that Greek just begins. The future begins when everyone touches upon the present sense of humanity in resistance against all corruption of power and as answer against those false destinies.

Auschwitz is the challenge to all not to become victims of circumstances, ideologies, and even silence. The ethics of seeing implies not to look the other way when others commit injustices, but to challenge them before too late. If not, Auschwitz continues to point out mostly in silence to those who visit that museum that all human efforts to seek justice and to live together in peace have failed.

Hatto Fischer

Athens 3.4.2002




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