Saturday 27 January 2018

Holocaust Memorial Day

An extract from Primo Levi's If This is a Man.

(from pages 165/6  Abacus edition, 2103)
The prisoners are marched onto the parade ground to witness an execution.

When all the Kommandos had returned, the band suddenly stopped  and a raucous voice ordered silence. Another voice rose up in the sudden quiet  and spoke for a long time into the dark and hostile air.  Finally the condemned man was brought out into the blaze of the searchlight .

All this pomp and ruthless ceremony are not new to us.  I have already witnessed  thirteen hangings since I entered the camp; but on other occasions  they were for ordinary crimes, thefts from the kitchen, sabotage, attempts to escape.  Today it is different..

Last month one of the crematoriums  at Birkenau  had been blown up.  None of us knows (and perhaps no one will ever know) exactly how the exploit was carried out:  there was talk of the Sonderkommando, the special Kommando attached to the gas chambers, and the ovens, which is itself periodically exterminated, and which is kept scrupulously  segregated  from the rest of the camp.  The fact remains that a few hundred men in Birkenau, helpless and exhausted slaves like ourselves, had found in themselves  the strength to act, to mature the fruits of their hatred.

The man who is to die in front of us today in some way took part in the revolt . . . . He is to die today before our very eyes: and perhaps  the Germans do not understand  that this solitary death, this man's death which has been reserved for him, will bring him glory, not infamy.

At the end of the speech, which nobody understood, the raucous voice of before  rose up again: 'Habt ihr verstanden?'  Have you understood? 

Who answered 'Jawohl?'  Everybody and nobody: it was  was as if our cursed resignation took body by itself , as if it turned into a collective voice above our heads.  But everybody heard the cry of the doomed man, it pierced through the old thick barriers of inertia and submissiveness, it struck the living core of man  in each of us.

'Kameraden, ich bin der Letz!'  (Comrades, I am the last one!)

We will remember them and him.

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