A very special day. Or memory is a demon.
For weeks now German media have been building up to this day. Seventy years of liberation of Auschwitz, seventy years of memorising the epicentre of the holocaust, seventy years in the land of the culprit. Today, on this very day all public TV and radio stations have changed their regular programmes. Special broadcastings and entire ‘theme days’ have been announced and now - as it is still dark outside at 6am and Germany slowly awakens - they pick up their pace.
Everyday when I am not travelling and wake up at home, I switch on the radio first thing. I listen to it while brushing my teeth, showering, shaving and getting dressed. By the time I walk down into the living room and turn on the coffee machine normally the most painful five minutes have already passed: ‘Gedanken zum Morgen’ (Thoughts for the Day) the daily superficial soundbite of ministers from across Germany who lost their spirituality in common places a long time ago. But not so today.
As I prepare my espresso and begin to steam some milk, instinctively I find myself thinking: ‘Well, it’s enough now!’ For over forty-five minutes I have heard nothing but various radio moderators and politicians talking about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Each one of them repeated common places about the importance of not letting go of our our living memories, of our guilt as a nation and the fact that this might be the last anniversary with living survivors of the actual concentration camp…
Of course I know what they say is true. Yet, I also know it is superficial and lacking depth - in light of what they are actually asking me to remember. Instinctively I feel the obligation to slow down, find a quiet place, to rest before the day has even begun, and to really think about the meaning of Auschwitz. For myself, for my country and for what it means to be human. Yet, my coffee is getting cold, the dog needs to be walked, snow needs to be shovelled and my work-inbox doesn’t really care about anniversaries anyway…
When I get back from walking my dog I prepare my second coffee. It’s now 8:45am and a full feature on Auschwitz is playing on the radio. Nowadays voices of survivors are mixed with old recordings from the time of the liberation as well as the subsequent lawsuits in the 60s.
Then I hear the voice of the commander of Auschwitz talking through my radio. His voice is cold and marked as if he was biting off every half-sentence. He talks about how he had been involved in organising the operations of the killing, in transforming a large labor camp into a the world’s most infamous death camp. He talks about how in isolated cellar rooms they began to experiment with ZyklonB. There his story is interrupted by old voices of surviving wittinesses. In broken German they describe what the commander wouldn’t say: They recall how long the screams from the gas chambers could be heard in the camp. Fifteen to twenty minutes. Each time a new group entered the gas chambers; more than a million people killed in batches of twenty to thirty, one unit at a time… The old voices speak about the red flame that lid up above the ovens each time shortly after the screams had disappeared. And how this red flame in the sky would never vanish from their memories.
Then a survivor who was part of the special task force begins to share his memories. He had been part of the groups that had to clean up the dead bodies and bring them to the ovens. Every three months the group would be killed and exchanged with new captives in order to leave no wittinesses. As he was called into the group shortly before the camp was abandoned, he survived. And so he recalls how the air ventilation was stopped in the chambers, how the Nazi soldiers threw in the ZyklonB - little blue pellets that quickly dissolved into gas - and how sometimes through a small, round glass window in the entrance door they would watch the death fight in the chambers. Fifteen, twenty minutes - through a small window a glance into the heart of evil. When his group opened the doors and came in to clean up, they stepped right into hell. The insecticide had strange effects on the human body. Sometimes it would peel off the skin from flesh and bones. Some people would die instantly and others would even survive the death fight. These they had to pick up like everyone else, throw them into the barrows and wheel them over to the ovens. The survivors shares how they once found a child between the dead, still alive despite all the gas and the adults dying around him. They turned to the Nazi official next to them. He looked at it, picked it up and threw it into the oven alive.
As the feature comes to end, my second coffee is cold. I now recall precisely the horror I felt when visiting Auschwitz in the early 2000s. A horror I never forgot, but consciously tried to lock away somewhere in the lower chambers of my own consciousness. I now feel powerless and helpless in light of all the broken voices that shared such terror. In a strange way I also feel blessed of having grown up in a generation where all of these voices still belonged to living people. Somehow I feel blessed that their living memory is part of my upbringing; that we share at least something - their living experiences are my childhood stories.
I also now realise why my instinct reacted so harshly against the invitation to remember Auschwitz earlier this morning. Because such memory is deeply disruptive; it doesn’t accept superficiality, like thin ice it breaks open the moment we place a foot on it. When we return to such places of horror the world around us fades away. And that feeling - of being lost and not knowing why and still trying to understand so hard - that is precisely why returning is so important.
Thank you, to all the journalists, media people and even politicians who on this special day invited me to remember what happened at Auschwitz. Following their invitation is like inviting a demon back into your mind: It's painful and disruptive and conjures up terrible images. But boy, can it teach us.