What Remains?

“And yet, nowhere is this nightmare of destruction and terror less perceived and less spoken about than in Germany. All around, one is conscious that there is no reaction to what has happened, but it is hard to say whether this is due to a deliberate refusal to grieve or whether it is an expression of true inability to feel emotion. Among the ruins Germans write to each other on picture postcards with images of churches and market squares, of public buildings and bridges that no longer exist. And the indifference with which they move through the rubble finds its exact counterpart in the lack of mourning for the dead; it mirrors once again the apathy with which they reacted, or rather failed to react, to the fate of the refugees within their midst. This general want of feeling, and indeed evident callousness, which is sometimes concealed in cheap sentimentality, is nevertheless nothing but the most conspicuous outwardly symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and occasionally brutal refusal to confront the truth of what has happened, and to comprehend it.”

Hannah Arendt, Visiting Germany, 1950

Hannah Arendt, born in 1906 near Hannover, fled as early as 1933 to France. Imprisoned in Gurs in 1940, she was able to escape to the USA through Lisbon. There she taught political theory at many universities. She became a well-known public intellectual. She died in New York in 1975.

“And how often were people stunned: ‘What, you came back? Then it surely can’t have been that bad.’ Some years later, in 1950 or 1951, a French official at a reception in an embassy pointed at the prisoner number tattooed on my forearm. He asked smilingly whether that was my cloakroom number! I should add that it was a high-ranking official. For years after this encounter I preferred to wear long sleeves.
In these post-war years people said absolutely terrible things. Today, we have forgotten all the subliminal antisemitism which some openly blared out. After 1945 I did not become a cynic, it is not in my nature, but I was robbed of any illusions I possessed. Despite all the films, all the witness testimonies, and all the accounts, the Shoah remains an absolutely private and impenetrable event.”

Simone Veil, A Life, 2007

Simone Veil, born in Nice in 1927, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 and was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. After the war she was engaged in French politics and became the health and social affairs minister. In 1979 she became the president of the European parliament. She died in 2017 in Paris.

“Stopping outside a small farmhouse, where an older woman, trough before her, washed clothes. New question. You’re in Gurs, says the woman, not looking up from her work. Clears throat. It’s the old dilemma; certain things should not be said aloud, it is easy to make oneself look suspicious. Wasn’t there a large camp here just before the war, Camp de Gurs? Of course. The woman will not be moved by anything to look up and take part in the traveller’s desperate search. And where was it? Now she finally turns to the enquirer, points with the wrinkled, dark-tanned hand to a wide field, meadows, bushes, a scatter of chestnut trees. […] Here, says the woman, the Camp de Gurs was here. The traces are all gone. It was not without horror and a deep mortal fear that the visitor thought: Grass has grown over my past; grass has really grown, I always thought that was just a saying. Grass. And: Merci! The farmer has long since returned to bending over the trough and is washing with a diligence as if to wash away time.”

Jean Améry, Places, 1980, posthumous

Jean Améry, born in Vienna in 1912, emigrated to Belgium in 1938. In 1940 he was imprisoned in Gurs. He managed flee back to Belgium. In 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz, Mittelbau-Dora and Bergen-Belsen camps. After the liberation he worked as a writer and became an influential intellectual. In 1978, he took his own life in Salzburg.

“In silent coexistence with the non-Jewish surroundings, the Jewish community attempted to forge a life from the survivors. – A life that was taken from six million daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents. A life in grief. In pain. In anger. A life in Germany. But: home is home.
[…] I need not present to you the chronology of antisemitic incidences in our land. They happen openly, unashamedly – almost daily. Conspiracy myths enjoy ever-more popularity. Anti-Jewish thinking and speech continue to receive votes. It has become socially acceptable again – from school to the Corona demonstrations. And of course: on the internet – the boiler for all types of hatred and baiting.
[…] Ladies and gentlemen, to conclude, just three thoughts: the first concerns the millions of victims who we commemorate today. They are in our hearts. They will not be forgotten. Never! The second concerns the contemporary witnesses. Many at this lectern have told of inconceivable horror. We now hand the relay of memory to you – trusting that we are placing it in good hands. Do not forget us! The third concerns the young people: There is no better compass than that of your own heart. Do not allow yourselves to be talked into who you should love and who you should hate!”

Charlotte Knobloch, Speech to the German Bundestag’s commemoration of the victims of National Socialism, on the 27th of January 2021

Charlotte Knobloch, born in Munich in 1932, survived the Holocaust in hiding, and under a false identity, in a different country. After 1945 she participated in the reconstruction of Jewish life in Germany and Europe. In 2006 she became the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Today, she lives in Munich.