Teaching the unimaginable: the role of poetry in remembrance of the Holocaust

Recently attending a Remembrance Day service I was struck by the speech given by the local vicar who asked the gathering whether we thought we took our freedom for granted? Of course we take our freedom for granted if we are lucky enough to be free.   If we have never known what it is not to be free. Can we imagine soldiers coming to our homes, dragging members of our family away, looting and burning? No-one who has not directly experienced such things can really imagine it.

How then do we teach the unimaginable? For teach it we must.

An item which appeared in the Museums Journal (November 2017) refers to Holocaust remembrance and discusses the Museums of 21st century will interpret this subject. The article starts with a description of two televisions screens in the V&A in London relaying testimonies from Holocaust survivors:

“We always say never again, but it happens all the time. Not for nothing does one say that history repeats itself.”

Education is a vital part of breaking the chain of history repeating itself yet a report by the 2015 Holocaust Commission apparently concluded that teachers are confused about how to teach the holocaust with many schools avoiding the topic.

With the voices of the remaining holocaust survivors being stilled by time it is vital that we continue to find ways to educate and warn new generations of the horrors of genocide. Not only the Jews but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, history’s whole list of Chamber of Horrors murderers that gained power in the 20th century and held on to it long enough to cause the deaths of millions of innocent people of whatever race or creed, all this has to continue to be taught.

One of the usual ways ‘into’ studying the history of genocide is to look at the political, economic and cultural factors that were in play at the time. In many ways these are incidental factors, not reasons at all. There are never any reasons, or rather there is only one reason, that such horrors can occur – it is the same reason that nuclear weapons continue to exist despite that many people alive today witnessed reporting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is almost not enough to stop people killing each other although that would be a great start. The challenge is to stop them wanting to. We have not yet achieved that.

Yet we continue to try. Music art and poetry find a way into places that don’t seem accessible through purely intellectual means.

Holocaust poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) wrote probably the most famous poem to come out of the Holocaust – ‘Todesfugue’ – death and music combined. There were indeed orchestras in the death camps. Celan’s poem was apparently so shattering when read in his own voice (according to his biographer John Felstiner[1]) that even those with no German understood – not ‘the gist’ that oh so useless word – but the agonizing heart of it.

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Paul Celan (1920-1970)

 

In 21st century Britain do we think of poetry as decorative? Therapeutic? Inessential? Difficult? Perhaps all of those things to some extent. In Stalin’s Russia there were no such doubts. Reading Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam wife of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam it is clear that poetry was a game played for the highest stakes.

The freedom of artists is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. In Russia, during Stalin’s era, the role of the poet was to tow the party line. Failure to do so was a deadly business. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) effectively signed his own death warrant with a poem about Stalin. Twelve lines was all it took.

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Mandelstam was arrested, but was not executed immediately. He was sent into exile for years, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda; much of this time was spent in Voronezh. He continued to the end to be hounded for his failure to take ‘an official line’ in his poetry and eventually was rearrested, dying years later in a transit camp waiting to be shipped to the Siberian camp at Kolyma or some such hell on earth.

While Paul Celan survived the holocaust in terms of years he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, a victim of ungovernable trauma in a mind which had witnessed too much that could never be unwitnessed. Poetry, Celan said, could retrieve the German language from the abuses of the Nazis:

Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language remained, not lost yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.[2]

The poems of the holocaust are not just survivor or victim stories written in poetic form.

Teaching poetry fulfills the double function of filtering the unimaginable through language and the language of experience. Experiences evolve – we cannot showcase human experience only through artefacts in museums however horrific those artefacts may be.

It is difficult to freeze events in time. There is always a before and an after. A possibility of prevention and a possibility of re-enactment.  Of history repeating itself.  The best art drills down through time and concentrates intensity of lived experience, getting to its humanist core. The best poetry holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves stripped of political expedience and economic relativism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] J. Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Yale University Press (New Haven and London: 2001)

[2] Introduction by J. Felstiner. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Trans. Christopher Clark. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York, 1995)

Knowledge is not wisdom

Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.

Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.

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But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.

The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged  would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book  The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded).  In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.

We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”

We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book.  Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.

What do massive tech companies want from their employees?   They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves.   Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.

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But where there is use, there is abuse. In her book Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) Martha C. Nussbaum says:

“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”

A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House.  Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.

When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.

Here is another worrying thought from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).

In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ?  If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender?   Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?

There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.

But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Life would be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant.   This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.