Wednesday 27 January 2016

Holocaust Memorial Day.

Here is an extract from Primo Levi's astonishingly laconic account of his time in Auschwitz, If his is a Man.  A "selection" (of those to be sent to the gas chamber) is about to take place.

Our Blockbaltester knows his business.  He has made sure that we have all entered [their hut], he has locked the door, he has given everyone his card with his number, name, profession, age and nationality, and has ordered everyone to undress completely, except for shoes.  We wait like this, naked, with the card in our hands, for the commission to reach our hut.  We are hut 48, but one can never tell if they are going to begin at hut 1 or hut 60.  At any rate, we can rest quietly at least for an hour, and there is no reason why we should not get under the blankets of the bunk and keep warm.

Many are already drowsing when a barrage of orders, oaths and blows proclaims the imminent arrival of the commission.  The Blockaltester and his helpers, starting from the end of the dormitory , drive the crowd of frightened, naked people  in front of them and cram them into the Tagesraum, which is the quartermaster's office. 
[. . . .]
The Blockaltester has closed the connecting door and has opened the other two which led form the dormitory and the Tagesraum outside.  Here in front of the two doors, stands the arbiter of our fate, an SS subaltern.  On his right is the Blockaltester, on his left the quartermaster of the hut.  Each one of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum  into the cold October air, has to run a few steps  between the two doors, give the card to the SS man and enter the dormitory  door.  The SS man, with a glance at one's back and front, judges everyone's fate, and in turn gives the card  to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each of us.. . . .

. . . Like everyone else I passed by with a brisk  and classic step, trying to hold my head high, my chest forward and my muscles contracted and conspicuous.   With the corner of my eye I tried to look behind my shoulders, and my card seemed to end on the right. . .

As we gradually come back into the dormitory we are allowed to dress ourselves.  Nobody knows yet  with certainty his own fate, it has first of all to be established  whether the condemned cards  were those on the right or the left.*

Those on the left went to the gas chambers, and Levi survived.

As Giles Fraser, former Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, points our in a thoughtful article in yesterday's Guardian  there is an argument that  comparison of other events with the Holocaust "posits a moral equivalence that downplays the horror of the death camps."  Yet we must recognise that there have been genocides since 1945,  in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and, currently, Darfur.  All at base happen because one group regards another as less human than themselves.

Our casual attitude to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, "keep out" fences erected around some EU countries, the squalid conditions in the "Jungle" outside Calais, the pathetically small number of places offered to refugees by our government and our shameful opt-out of any EU sharing agreement, the incompetent treatment of applications for asylum, the hostile reaction of some to asylum seekers identified by red doors and red wristbands, are dangerous, if preliminary, steps down a slippery slope. 

Last Saturday I was engaged in (apparently animated) discussion with a friend on one of the main streets of Leeds.  A young man asked us if we were discussing politics.  We said we were and he asked us if we were for "In" or "Out" of the European Union.  Our enthusiastic response of "In" seemed to take him by surprise
"What about the refugees?" he demanded.

When I said we should treat them humanely and welcome them he exploded;  "African shit!" not once but several times.

When I said I had lived in Africa for several years and never met anyone I would describe in those terms I was told to "F--- off."

Given  the poison oozed out by some of our press, I suspect there would be no shortage of volunteers to be Blockaltesters  in this country should the opportunity arise.  We desperately need a civilised counter-argument and lead from our politicians before it is too late, and all of us need to observe the theme of this year's Memorial Day, "Don't stand by."

*If This is a Man, Primo Levi, pp 142/3,Abacus, 2013

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