I met Elly Gotz at a hotel in Toronto, an old man in a dark blazer with the thin silver chain of hearing aids dangling behind his ears. He was tall, thin, unbowed by the 88 years since his birth in pre-war Lithuania, yet ground frail by the inevitable march of time. I, sitting at a table of fellow students who were strangers yet less strange than Elly, ignored him. It is always the habit of the young to ignore their elders, for we are infatuated with expanding possibility, while theirs seems only to diminish.
My fellow students and I had been chosen through an interview process to participate in a 10 day experience of Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland, an experience organized and subsidized by the Canadian branch of the March of Remembrance and Hope. We had been drawn together from universities across Canada, and represented a kaleidoscope of educational, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. A few were Jewish, and a few were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, but most of us were simply students with an interest in the historical past. We had yet to understand that Elly was to be our living link to that past, to take the intellectual tableaux of history and root it in the thews of his own flesh and spirit.
For what is the Holocaust to a 25-year-old gentile from the Protestant stronghold of southern Alberta? What is the Warsaw Ghetto, or Majdanek? What is Auschwitz? They are paragraphs on a page, science fiction, perhaps an exercise in uncomfortable imagination. The privilege of my upbringing makes such places remote and alien, as if I view them through a mirror darkly. This is a blessing, of course, but it also makes me apt to undermine the suffering of others and forget their pain. We are machines for forgetting, especially when confronted by those things that our limited experiences do not allow us to understand.
Elly is a pilot, a husband, an engineer, a father, an entrepreneur, a Jew, and a Holocaust survivor. I hesitate to define him as any one of these things, since, although our society worships only one of them, Elly’s life neither began nor ended in 1945. He is a survivor of atrocity, yet not defined by atrocity. He carries a smartphone, and yet tells stories of the Dachau concentration camp in the first person. Elly was the first survivor I had ever met, perhaps the only one I ever will. What drove him to return and walk beside us through the darkest machineries of the Third Reich is hard for me to understand, but I am blessed to have shared in his experience, to have spoken with history and to hear it speak back.
We flew out of Toronto on the 16th of June, and returned on the 25th of the same month. In-between we spent nine frantic 14+ hour days at memorials and museums, concentration camps and sites of Nazi power. I have never been on a trip as saturated in the residue of evil, or been as impressed by the humanity of my fellow students, our leaders, and the heroic spirit of Elly himself. In 10 days we became witnesses both of humanity’s terrifying capacity for atrocity, and its still greater capacity to overcome.
Remembrance and hope.
A City I Hate To Love
Our two tour guides met us in Berlin. David was a long-haired Jewish hippie-type, a product of the Israeli army, and the pursuit of beautiful women across several continents. Jed was a rail-thin Polish scion of the punk-rock scene, complete with Star Wars tattoos and a passion for comic books. They were an unlikely duo who had travelled very different roads, and Berlin was the intersection of their paths and ours. For 10 days we would walk together, and the first two would be spent in the city that David admitted was a place “I hate to love.”
Why such strong ambivalence? Because Berlin is a centre of culture in Europe, was once the cultural centre of Europe, and yet it is also haunted by the bones and troubled dreams of the Third Reich. It is a city where socialist-era concrete blocs rub shoulders with the elaborate classical facades of Humboldt University and the Gemäldegalerie. A city of commerce and industry, beer gardens and flashy, euro clubs, as well as innumerable memorials, big and small, to the victims of the Nazi regime. It is a beautiful city, but one that bears its scars visibly. It is a city David hates to love because his passion for the present is tainted by his hatred of the past, which he believes Berlin is still responsible for.
We were told, by our guides, that Germany has done the best of any country in taking responsibility for its wartime actions, and Berlin has the most comprehensive memorials of any German city. We visit the Tiergartenstrasse 4 memorial to the disabled victims of the Nazis, as well as memorials for its Roma, Sinti, and LGBTQ victims. In the Bebelplatz we witnessed the site where books by authors condemned by the Nazi regime were burned in giant bonfires. There we gathered around a window sunk into the square’s paving stone, and studied rows of empty bookshelves built into an underground chamber.
David implied that the Nazis were burning all the books and thereby trying to return Germany to an idealic, pre-intellectual state, but this was not actually the case. The Nazis targeted the works of Jewish authors, as well as works they believed to criticize or subvert the regime. Consequently, the burnings were not the destruction of German literature as much as its ‘purification.’ The buried shelves we looked down upon should have contained spaces amongst lines of titles, but not been entirely empty.
In my second year of university I considered organizing a campus book burning myself as a form of creative literary criticism, but relinquished the idea when a professor informed me that such an activity was illegal under Canadian law (later I discovered it wasn’t). A literary culture is always fascinated by the destruction of knowledge implicit in the burning of books. There is a seduction in destruction, especially the destruction of ideas, that lends a certain totalitarian excitement. It has a hint of armbands and marching boots about it; a taste of power.
Perhaps the most famous Holocaust monument in Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a $25 million dollar installation located only a block from the Brandenburg Gate and across the street from the American embassy. Here architect Peter Eisenman created a grid-like pattern out of 2,711 concrete stellae, no two of which are identical in shape. Walking amongst them it is hard not to make connections to a cemetery, an ordered system in which humanity is standardized, controlled, and forced to bend to scientific reason deprived of morality.
We entered the memorial as thirty students walking together, yet, like balls fired into a pachinko machine, quickly divided into our own solitary paths. In the cool shadows between the stones I caught glimpses of the others, but they did not see me and the solemn concrete discouraged me from calling to them. Each of us walked in our own thoughts, frail flesh in a graveyard of grey tombstones. It was as if each stella had once been a living, vital person, suddenly encased in concrete by a system seeking to both dehumanize and destroy all that made them different from a sterile, industrial ideal.
Welcome to the future. Welcome to the Third Reich.
An Empire That Will Last A Thousand Years
There is a communist-era memorial near Krakow that I cannot forget. It is not the memorial that haunts me, but instead two small Polish girls playing in a grassy depression at its base. They were too young to understand the monument or its condemnation of the “Hitlerites,” too innocent to care, but their presence was a knife into the ideological wound of several Jews in our group.
The monument was in memory of those who had died at the Plaszow concentration camp. The hill we stood on was Hujowa Górka (literally ‘Dick Hill’), where Nazi sadists had forced Jews to commit perverse sexual acts for their entertainment. The grassy depression in which the two Polish girls played was the final resting place for the ashes of an unknown number of Krakow’s Jewish community.
David explained this to us in English, with the father of the two girls standing nearby. To David’s chagrin, the father was both an English-speaker and an eavesdropper, and confronted our guide and us in a spontaneous and awkward encounter. “There is little other green space in this town,” he said, “and no signage explaining that this place is a cemetery. I will explain the history to my girls when they are old enough, but for now they simply need a place to play.”
We agreed nervously, laughed too quickly and loudly, and David performed the feather-smoothing sideways shuffle of the experienced guide. He suggested that somebody should perhaps put up a fence, that the incident was nobody’s fault, and that the man had very beautiful children.
All of this was perhaps true, but it did not calm the anger of Rebeccah, a Jewish student with firm beliefs about the sacredness of space, nor Isaac, a friend of Elly who was travelling alongside us. Rebecca came close to tears at the site, while Isaac sent us an email a few days later indicating that he was lining up support from the Jewish community for an enclosure around the depression.
Yet I could muster neither their outrage at the ‘violation,’ nor their enthusiasm for the ‘solution.’ Instead I found myself questioning the assumptions being made, and the methods being suggested. I am not Jewish, obviously, and therefore it was not my people who had died on Hujowa Górka, but I could not help but wonder if more signage, more monuments, more memorials are always the answer.
First of all, I wonder how long a space inhabited by the Nazis must remain polluted by their presence. Different religions ascribe different levels of awareness and sensitivity to creation (or ‘nature’), and most agree that the acts carried out in a location have an effect upon the spiritual forces present there. Yet any place with an extensive history of human habitation is necessarily also the site of human atrocity, death, and violence. Should we therefore build fences on every site where we know violence occurred? Wouldn’t that turn most of Europe and the Middle East into a patchwork of restricted spaces?
At what point is a site allowed to ‘forget’ the Nazi presence, and to ‘heal’ of their atrocities?
Secondly, bodies are holy in Jewish tradition, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Rebecca and Isaac considered the grassy depression sacred. Yet I find it hard to argue that building a fence in 2016, 70 years after the end of WWII, is the best way to celebrate those who died or those who lived. Hitler once boasted that the Third Reich would endure for a thousand years, which it obviously didn’t, but wouldn’t it be a perverse twist of fate if we who defeated him became so wrapped up in memorializing his crimes that his legacy indeed persists for a millennium? If, 1000 years from now, schoolchildren around the world are still reading about Hitler, the man who came close to destroying civilization?
In some ways, I find the play of those two Polish girls (members of a ‘race’ reviled by Hitler as only slightly better than Jewry), to be a more potent act of resistance than any fence or any sign. They are the symbol of new life, of the failure of Hitler’s grand vision for a purified Aryan nation. Their laughter is the greater act of defiance since it makes Hitler not reviled but irrelevant. God-willing, it is their generation that will live in a world in which words like ‘Nazi,’ ‘Reich,’ and ‘Final Solution’ will no longer be definitive.
I realize that such thoughts are anathema in a program which contains the word ‘Remembrance’ in its very title, yet I cling to them anyway. There is a time to remember, and yet there is also a time to reconcile and forget. To cling too tightly to the past is, in one sense, to be defined by that memory.
History can be a trap as much as a path to freedom.
The names of my fellow students have been changed to preserve anonymity.