Sep 5, 2009

September 1, 1939

On September 1st, which was last Tuesday, I was watching Katyń by Andrzej Wajda and I realized during it that that Tuesday marked the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, and of the Second World War. I was really intrigued that no one had mentioned anything during that day (but not so much, since I hadn't turned on the TV or opened up a newspaper). I had to check afterwards to see if it had been really September 1st, but yes, it had. Because I came of age in the 90s, I got used to the idea that WWII had happened 50 years ago, because my mind always made the math based on 1945. But realizing that such event happened exactly 70 years ago kind of disturbed me. Seventy years felt like a long time ago, and I felt a pang of fear that it might some day be forgotten.

And we know it never should. We know that all that happened in Europe in the 40s has been exploited ad nauseum in many different ways, movies being just one of them. You may approach the Holocaust through several different perspectives, but so many of them will feel wrong, exploitative, cheap and unfair. But I believe one must still try. A good example of both the importance and the fragility of this issue can be seen in J M Coetzee's The Lives of Animals. In one of the many interesting passages, the character Elizabeth Costello believes the Holocaust to be important to be talked about, especially under the posthumanist thought she seems to be trying to get at in her speech (and I in here), but she also proves how delicate the subject is. After establishing that we believe the crime of Nazi Germany was to have killed people as animals, she then draws a comparison between killing animals for food and the Jews who died in the camps. As a result, her listeners are offended and one of them writes her a note refusing to have dinner with her, stating that if she refuses to 'break bread' with the Germans for their animal treatment of the Jews, he, too, will not break bread with her for drawing such comparisons between animals and Jewish people.

This subject is fraught with polemic, especially within such a field as Animal Studies, where important concepts and ideas are interrelated in ways which sometimes are almost untraceable. Like Costello shows in her speech, the concepts of humanity and animality are thrown around many times when we discuss the Holocaust, both attached to killers and victims, and then also when we try to think of torture and genocide as something that also happens to animals. The problem, it seems, is that although we throw these concepts around, they never seem to stick. There's always room to be self-righteous, to be shocked, to be speechless - and also room to scorn at these attempts. For many different reasons, relating genuinely to what happened in the camps seems to be impossible. For those who were not there, it seems like there is only the possibility of acknowledging vaguely that it happened, and of abusing the word barbarity for whatever moral code we may be trying to defend. My question is: isn't what happened in Europe in the 40s important to our understanding of humanity, even if we arrive at no neat conclusion? Shouldn't there be a way to relate to all that, to think the tragedy, without falling short of something? And especially within the wide field of what may be called posthumanism, doesn't the question of the animal (and of the human) depend on taking the tragedy into account? But how can it be done?

I do not have answers for these questions, but I have some clues - and some unacceptable answers that I hope might get us closer to some good ones. For example, it should never be thought of as a German crime. As much as the Holocaust may have been a humanist crime, it should not be thought of as an exclusively German event. The attempt to relate to the Holocaust should not be seen as way to see into the crazed minds of German soldiers and check what we should look out for. We shouldn't look at the Holocaust to try to find the elements in German culture that supposedly might have led to it. All I'm saying is that the Holocaust important, it should be considered, and the ordinary urban citizen of the New World finds himself or herself unable to reach it through any means that would be considered appropriate. How can one think the Holocaust properly?

Take me, for example. I have Polish background and, even though my great-grandparents came to Brazil in the 1910s, I grew up listening to horrible stories about oppression from the Germans, the Russians and of mutual hate with Ukranians. And about the war. Not a specific one, but for the Poles, war seems to run deep no matter what you are talking about. Having grown up in such an environment, Polish stories and national identity were no other than family trivia for me, just like the nice food and the enigmatic Polish words. But when I decided to take an interest in my background in my teens, I started having some questions which came very close to the ones above. One of them is like the chicken-egg question: do the Poles hate everybody around them because they were invaded by virtually every nation in Europe or were they invaded by virtually every nation in Europe because they hate everybody around them? Others were more serious, such as: what part exactly do the war and oppression play in the formation of Polish identity? Why do Poles are so hateful if they have seen many times the effects that hate has had for them? Why are they so intensively Catholic? Can the Poles teach us something about humanism and the relationship with Otherness, or at least something about how such relationship can go wrong?

This last question is a good one. For those who don't know, the word for Germany in Polish, Niemcy, means simply "foreigners" (apparently from the old form of the word niemowa, meaning "mute", that is, "those who do not speak our language"). As such, it seems that Poland's relationship with Otherness has always been relevant. Do the answers to my questions reside in Poland? Would a Polish way of relating to the Holocaust be more respecful, more inclusive, closer to the bone? Can Poland's history and national identity give us an insight into this relationship with the Other that may trigger compassion, humanism, barbarity or posthumanism?

When I was there (in 2006) I got a very different picture of the country from the one conveyed by my grandmother. Actually, based on what I was familiar with, what I saw spelled "national identity crisis". Most of the Poles I met had strong bonds with the Outside, but not as a way to define their identity and to seek segregation. Most of them studied Languages in college and were obsessed by the culture and language of a particular country (I met many obsessed about Portugal, Brazil and Portuguese language, which was plain surreal). All peolpe I met were atheists, or did not care about the church. And most importantly, most of them were ashamed of being Polish. They confessed to having lied about their nationality more than once. Poland's religion and patriotism were important weapons against a series of invasions that left them without borders, government, flag or army. With no flag to project themselves onto, they needed Catholicism to set themselves apart - and apparently a lot of xenophobia. Could the carefully organized humanism of Polish Catholicism and nationalism have finally crumbled under the humanist projects of the Others, who invaded or numbed them?

Those questions were only half-formed at the time, but I guess I had some of this in my mind when I visited Auschwitz, which is the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, and the name of the 'museum' there which was once what many consider the apogee of humanism. The group of Brazilian students I was part of went to Oświęcim on a tour and I missed it because I had to stay in the hotel writing a paper for college back here in Brazil. So I went on my own, along with four other Brazilians, two that had also missed the tour, and two others that we met on the hotel. In a way it was better, because we had to find our way around. Because I could speak Polish best in our group, I was in charge of arranging our way there, which I believe included never asking "How do I get to Auschwitz?", but asking "Please, what bus do I get to go to Oświęcim?". Apparently deep down I already thought that the Poles would have a "truer", different vision of what I was about to see, and it seems I felt I had to be careful not to step on their toes.

Once there we realized we were very late and that the camp was closing in one hour. I was struck by the beauty of the place, and the tranquility. You have to walk a long way along the train track and you remember the stories they tell about the place's not having flowers. I know deep down I was thinking: "Isn't this a decent way of approaching the Holocaust?" Once past the gate with the words about the joys of work, I didn't know what to feel. I felt okay, it was just a quiet meadow with a lot of lined-up brick buildings. We moved about a lot and eventually I got separated from my friends except for a woman who was too scared to actually go see anything. I paid a visit to just some of the barracks closest to the gates. One of them was just about Ukrainian prisoners, another only about the Armia Krajowa, the resistance army. I walked around some more and my three other friends showed up later, minutes before the place closed, telling us how they had hurried in and out of every barracks in order to see everything. They said they had got to see the horrible things people talk about (the ovens, the gas chambers and piles of eyeglasses and other belongings) but they did not seem too impressed. The whole of Auschwitz was blown away from my mind right after, because it was dark and there were no trains or buses leaving. We had to walk to the nearest train station and overpay a taxi to drive us back to Kraków, where we eventually headed to a bar and the hotel.

But after all those years I still felt that I had not really been to Auschwitz. I mean, I was there, and I was not blocking anything, I was looking and looking, and walking - not trying to understand something or searching for answers, especially because I had no conscious questions. But I felt no closer to the war or the Holocaust than the average person, even though I had been fed Polish sad stories as a child, even though I found my family's last name in the list of prisoners in Auschwitz, even though I had walked among the very barracks where it all happened. What other openness did it take? My feeling was not, as my boyfriend usually criticizes, an attempt to understand the Holocaust, to give Auschwitz a coherence that would soothe my otherwise peaceful suburban mind so I could purge all barbarity from me and isolate it in Nazi Germany, as if only they could have accomplished such a thing. It was not that. In fact, what I wanted was to be scarred by that place, by those six years of humanist intensity, to really assimilate both the suffering and the barbarity. But I just felt I couldn't.

That was until yesterday, when I watched the documentary Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, from 1955. By the end of the movie, I just gave up wiping my tears. Never was crying so joyless and unredemptive. Like I said, it's not about organizing and understanding repugnance so we can live with it, it's not about demonizing Germany to blame them or pity them, it's not about a historical knowledge, it's not about vaccination, it's not just so those people won't have died in vain. If you go to Oświęcim, or if you watch said film, or if you just sit at home thinking about Poland in the 40s, do not shudder before barbarity, for it's your own. Don't grieve for the prisoners, grieve for your own humanism. Do not pity the dead, pity the living. Not the ones to whom all of this may happen again, but those who are capable of doing it. And pity yourself as one of them. Because we need that in order to reach anything resembling the understanding of humanity and animality, we need it to perhaps know exactly how important the Holocaust is to all this and then to decide what to do with such knowledge, if we ever know it.

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