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2kNreeJ

2kNreeJ

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE 72 ends in the Auschwitz gas chamber where the protagonist, Ernie Levy, remembered in the moment before his death the legend of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion. “When the gentle rabbi, wrapped in the scrolls of the Torah, was flung upon the pyre by the Romans for having taught the Law, and when they lit the faggots, branches still green to make his torture last, his pupils said, Master, what do you see? And Rabbi Chanina answered, I see the parchment burning, but the letters are taking wing.” As Ernie remembered the letters taking wing, he died. Half an hour later his body was taken to the ovens. “And so it was for millions, who from Luftmensch became Luft. I shall not translate. So this story will not finish with some tomb to be visited in pious memory. For the smoke that rises from crematoria obeys physical laws like any other: the particles come together and disperse according to the wind, which propels them. The only pilgrimage, dear reader, would be to look sadly at a stormy sky now and then.” 14 Only in Auschwitz was incineration an essential part of the killing process from the very beginning. Only in Auschwitz did, in the words of Nelly Sachs, German-constructed chimneys provide “ingeniously devised habitations of death” through which “Israel’s body drifted as smoke.” 15 5 Anonymity In Auschwitz the whole killing process took place inside the crematoria, and therefore the killers did not have to confront the death of their victims. This made the killing procedure anonymous. The French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, whose parents were killed in Auschwitz in 1944, noticed that this anonymity introduced the negation of the crime within the crime itself. This did certainly apply to the SS men who introduced the Zyklon-B into the gas chambers. They only needed to open a small trapdoor, empty a tin of cyanide into a hole, and close the trapdoor. The removal of the corpses after the killing and the cremation was done by Jewish Special Squads, and again SS men did not have to face the hellish reality of the situation. 16 6 Survivors While the symbolic significance of Auschwitz as the epicenter of the Holocaust can be understood by considering numbers and sophisticated arguments, the core of it must be located in its survivors and its material remnants. Of the 1.1 million Jews who were deported to Auschwitz, some 100,000 Jews left the camp alive. In addition there were 100,000 non-Jewish survivors of Auschwitz. Why are the survivors so

important to the memory of Auschwitz? Why are Auschwitz survivors more important to the memory of Auschwitz than the survivors of the Rotterdam (May 1940), Hamburg (July 1943) or Hiroshima (August 1945) bombings are to the memory of those atrocities? There are various good answers to this, and related questions. Auschwitz survivors will, probably, tell you that because the purpose of Auschwitz was the murder of all Jews, and the purpose of those bombings was the surrender of the Dutch, German or Japanese armed forces, the simple fact of their own survival can be seen as a both politically and historically significant negation of Auschwitz, while the survival of an individual Dutchman, German or Japanese caught in the terror carries only a personal, individual meaning. When we consider the survivor as a witness, one who gives testimony, a person who tells a story, then another aspect comes to the foreground. Beginning with the Gilgamesh Epic and The Odyssey, the most fundamental narrative form is that of the man who once was home, like his audience, but who was pulled or thrown into a dangerous and exciting adventure that brought him to distant and strange lands, that caused the death of many comrades, and from which he returned, thanks to a thrilling escape from harm due to his skills or good luck or both, as a man who survived to tell the tale. Hence a good story is often a survivor story, and vice versa. This applies to a member of Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic, or a Jew who was shipped to Auschwitz, or a member of Canada’s First Nations who was confined in a Residential School. The original and historically vital relationship between survival and storytelling is, of course, at the core of Jewish identity. Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel once observed: “If all the nations, in the long course of history, have taken bitter pains to trample on the Jews, it is perhaps because they wished to know that strange people who, more than any other, possess the secret of survival.” 17 The great exiles foreshadowed by the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt and triggered by the destruction of first Solomon’s Temple and then Herod’s Temple ought have destroyed the Jewish people, but they did not. It is not clear what is the chicken and what is the egg: survival as recorded in the Bible or storytelling as exemplified in the Bible. 73 HOLOCAUST EDUCATION IN PEDAGOGY, HISTORY, AND PRACTICE This may help us to understand why we approach, understand and commemorate the Holocaust through the experience of the Holocaust-survivor—the person who returned from the l’univers concentrationnaire, or the “Planet Auschwitz,” the “Kingdom of Death” or whatever the realm of killings is called. The survivor claims, as a survivor, a quintessentially Jewish identity. This may be troubling to Orthodox Jews, who believe that Jewish identity ought to be rooted in the Covenant and experienced in a Jewish life ordered by commandments large and small, but as a historian one cannot but agree with Wiesel that because the story of the Jewish people as a collective is one of survival, the Holocaust survivor represents the ideal type of the Jew par excellence.