HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE 68 When Bauman referred to the Soviet camps, he used the term Gulag—an acronym for a department of the Soviet government: the Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel-no-trudovykh LAGere (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies). In other words, he used a term that the Soviets themselves used to refer to the system as a whole. But when Bauman referred to the German concentration camp system, and also to the genocidal killings that took place outside of those camps, he did not use the acronyms WVHA or RSHA—the Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (Economic-Administrative Head Office) which ran the camps or the Reichsicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office) which oversaw the deportations to the camps, but he used the name of “Auschwitz”—a particular camp that was both the largest of the German concentration camps, and the most deadly destination of Europe’s Jews. In using Auschwitz as a synecdoche for the German camp system and the Holocaust, Bauman suggested the uniquely important position of Auschwitz in the Age of Camps. In his novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child (originally published in 1990), the Hungarian survivor and writer Imre Kertész described a gathering of survivors of the German and Soviet camps. “Someone came up with the melancholy idea that everyone should say where he had been, at which names began to drop with a weary spattering, like rain passing from a passing cloud which has so long ago spent its force: Mauthausen, the Don Bend, Recsk, Siberia, the Transit Centre, Fö Street, 60 Andrássy Avenue, Buchenwald, Kistarcsa.” The protagonist dreaded the moment he was to state where he had been but, fortunately he was preempted: “‘Auschwitz,’ said somebody in the modest but self-assured tone of a winner, and the whole gathering nodded furiously: ‘Untrumpable,’ as the host himself admitted, half-enviously, half grudgingly, and yet, when all is said and done, with a wry smile of acknowledgment.” 3 Kertész consistently used the term “Auschwitz” to refer to what most of us define as the Holocaust. When he began work in the early 1970s on an autobiographical novel about his life in the German concentration camps, he noted in his diary that “the Mythos Auschwitz is the only thing that truly interests me. . . Auschwitz and everything that relates to it (and what is there that does not relate to it?) is the greatest trauma of European Man since the cross, even if it will take decades or even centuries before he will become conscious of it.” 4 Auschwitz was a Mythos, a concept that he had borrowed from Nietzsche, and which is quite different from a myth understood as a fictitious fable involving the supernatural world. For Nietzsche, a Mythos was a mode of thinking that communicates an idea of the world as a succession of events, actions and sufferings that appeals to the imagination and energizes groups to take action. 5 In other words, in a Mythos the name is also an event, saving the world from chaos.
In his Nobel Prize Lecture (2002) Kertész used the term “Auschwitz” when he referred to the contemporary human condition. “The problem of Auschwitz is not whether to draw a line under it, as it were; whether to preserve its memory or slip it into the appropriate pigeonhole of history; whether to erect a monument to the murdered millions, and if so, what kind. . . What was revealed in the Final Solution, in l’univers concentrationnaire, cannot be misunderstood, and the only way survival is possible, and the preservation of creative power, is if we recognize the zero point that is Auschwitz.” 6 Auschwitz, and not Buchenwald or Arbeitskommando Troeglitz near Zeitz, two camps where Kertész spent almost all of his time as a prisoner of the Nazis, and not Treblinka or Dachau, or any of the thousands of other Lagers that formed what the French survivor David Rousset had already identified in 1945 as l’univers concentrationnaire— the concentration camp universe. Why is “Auschwitz” untrumpable? Let’s begin with considering Kertész’s writings for an explanation why Auschwitz became the symbol of all the camps. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall Kertész defined Auschwitz as “the universal and eternal parable. In its name alone it gathers both the whole world of the Nazi concentration camps as well as also the general shakenness of the spirit. It must be kept in its mythically elevated place of display, so that pilgrims can visit it, like they visit the hill of Golgotha.” 7 Kertész did not find it necessary to list objective “historical” reasons to understand why Auschwitz had obtained that central role. For him it was sufficient to invoke a concept first coined by Thomas Mann: the so-called Geist der Erzählung, or “spirit of story-telling” which is a law or necessary form a particular story must take in order to be believable, and which is incarnated in a specific storyteller when he or she decides to tell a tale. 8 This “spirit of story-telling” and not the storyteller determines what goes into the story, and allows it to become a Mythos. This spirit is, as Kertész put it, “a kind of both secret and communal decision, which obviously reflects real spiritual motives and needs and which come forward in truth. They define the horizon of our daily life, those—in the final analysis—stories that deal with good and evil, and our world, surrounded by this horizon, is immersed in a never ending whispering about good and evil.” 9 Kertész suggested that this bodiless, ubiquitous “spirit of story-telling” made witnesses and writers like himself decide on Auschwitz as the pre-eminent stage of the Holocaust and the embodiment of all Nazi concentration camps, even if, as Kertész admitted, there were countless other camps. Yet most of them are forgotten, and one should not quarrel with this fact. “The resolute spirit of the tale preferred to choose this camp instead of another, symbolizing the others through this one.” 10 69 HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE