Auschwitz to Activism

Holocaust Memorial Day advert. Turin, 2012.

I recently moved to Berlin for an exciting project: to help design and facilitate a conscientization program built around the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. This has been particularly daunting for me, as the grandchild of four survivors. However, I believe that this project is more necessary than ever. The program for Trauma and Emancipation for 3rd Generation Nazi Holocaust Survivors will help us wade through the Holocaust’s legacy, and understand what comes next.

The built-in sense of injustice that many descendants have is a critical asset to be used in various political struggles. From fighting the far-right’s rise across Europe, to opposing the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories, to combating runaway climate change, the resources are all there. The challenge lies in leveraging our history to confront such crises. There is no doubt about its relevance.

Living in Berlin has involved quite a bit of soul-searching on my part. I was born to a long line of European Jews, spanning Holland, Poland, Romania, and Germany. As a child, I learned that for centuries, Jews have been persecuted, expelled from their homes, and massacred. Under the Nazis, my grandparents were hunted and bludgeoned by those who decided that Jews, along with other minority groups, had no right to live on this planet. I was shaped by their stories of what they experienced here.

Interestingly enough, I heard my grandparents’ stories at the same time as my parents: when they were very old. Their minds stopped looking forward, and instead reversed, releasing their repressed experiences like projectile vomit. Many survivors made terrible parents, because they had no desire to discuss what happened, but are now excellent grandparents, because they are now elderly and more inclined to explore their lives.

That means there is a great deal of unprocessed trauma which has hung over their lives. The legacy of this darkness has been passed down through the generations, and influences many Jews, including myself and my siblings, today. They usually don’t stay buried either. While I grew up in a household where a key mantra was “emotions don’t pay the wages,” these insidious historical poisons have to get out one way or another. It’s just a matter of whether or not it’s healthy.

Understanding that, I have tried to search for purpose more positively. For reasons unfathomable to me, I wanted to take the spirit of Albert Camus‘ teachings, and embrace life to deal with its absurdity. Life has been a long battle of extracting peace and understanding from the spiritual warfare that I have inherited, and endured. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, with the purpose of searching for universal freedom: the very freedom that they were denied.

Holocaust memorial, Legion of Honor. San Francisco, 2009.
Holocaust memorial, Legion of Honor. San Francisco, 2009.

This cultural awareness has provided my generation with an innate awareness of humanity. This certainly includes the nightmarish effects of calculated destruction and human depravity. But it can also comprise the depths of people’s courage to struggle, and how much their spirits can possibly withstand.

As a child, my eyes were immediately opened to these realities, and have never been shut. Hannah Arendt‘s concept of the banality of evil taught me how everyone can become complicit to evil when oppression is sufficiently normalized. I learned that the only way out is critical thinking, along with sticking to your values, while confronting things head on for the betterment of everyone.

This can be emotional, especially here in Berlin. My grandparents lived in this city before the war, and it feels eerie to navigate it given how I factor into its violent past. Growing up, barely a conversation went by without a reference to the Holocaust. Every article, film, or theater production in London that was linked to it was not to be missed. Now I live around the corner from where my Opa escaped the Nazis, and am trying to get a grip on the history that I’ve inherited.

As I walk around the city, I see the shrines and monuments to the Holocaust. This includes park benches with their Nein Juden signs removed, old SS buildings that are now boarded up, and freshly-sprayed swastikas that remind me how the soul of anti-Semitism lives on.

Just last year, 900 armed police stormed around 150 neo-Nazi premises in North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest sweep ever to occur in western Germany. It came just as the state’s Minister of the Interior, Rulf Jäger, banned three large neo-Nazi groups. The National Socialist Underground continues to terrorize minorities, and on the news, I watch stories detailing how Nazi ideology can still pose a threat today. It’s all very unnerving. Even if anti-Semitism is not a part of mainstream politics anymore, it’s still alive.

Still though, we have to rise above the hatred, understand what happened, and do everything in our power to prevent these crimes from happening to anyone ever again. Few other pieces of history have the same capacity to make us rethink humanity as the Holocaust. It forces us to reconsider our deepest assumptions about human beings and their inherent nature.

I choose to believe that humans are intelligent, and often, compassionate. We can learn to heal ourselves without inflicting fresh wounds. However, it requires work, and seizing these anniversaries as an opportunity to renew our understanding about what happened.

The only way forward after the Holocaust is to hear your own heart beat in the backdrop of such death. That means abandoning blind faith, and using our cultural inheritance to fight against the epidemic of melancholy in the world around us. We have to enhance people’s lives, and their possibility of collective joy and sheer ecstasy.

Anti-nationalism sticker. Berlin, 2010.
Anti-nationalism sticker. Berlin, 2010.

For survivors, that means a number of responsibilities. One of them has always been understanding that the sheer brutality that Jews suffered at the hands of the Third Reich produced a yearning for freedom and belonging. However, that desperation led to the creation of Israel at the expense of its Palestinian Arab population.

Since then, Israel, through its military and support from Western legislatures like the Bundestag, has become one of the world’s most formidable powers with a human rights record that is absolutely horrendous. I find it shameful that we as descendants often go so far as to cast Israel as a victim state, to legitimize the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and our treatment of other populations, such as African refugees. We have not dealt with the Holocaust’s legacy, and it continues in the trajectory of Israeli politics today.

Years of war, inherited trauma, and mental disorders are not going to be easy to unravel. However, the end of the Holocaust cursed us with an oppressive mindset. Our psychological liberation from it, and our sense of victimhood is essential to us gaining insight into how we can transform societies for the better. The anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko was right to say that “the biggest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is our minds.” The Holocaust is not over until we free ourselves from it.

Next year, world leaders will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. While the commemorations go on from year to year, the need for understanding is still very much alive. Amid the pyrotechnics, the field trips to Auschwitz, and Hollywood-style government productions, will be references to the United Nations statement “Never Again.” It was in Resolution 217a (III) which passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I wonder: will the discussions the anniversary provokes stop the genocides of today? Can memorials with the absence of true dialogue and action ever bring harmony to our troubled world?

It is only when the sun sets on the entire Nazi mentality that we can firmly say, “Never Again.” The role that we survivors have to play in that is by opposing ourselves against regimes that are cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical enough to be set on a course for destruction. We must remind our friends and neighbours that, as Albert Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The battle starts in ourselves.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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