To Remember…?

27 01 2009

My daily perusal of the BBC has seen me stumble across an interesting debate. Of course today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and it provides a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the devastation caused by a policy of racial cleansing in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The BBC has posed the question “Should Auschwitz be left to decay?” and has provided the two sides of the argument in the form of Robert Van Jan Pelt (historian) and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (former Polish foreign minister and inmate of Auschwitz). The points raised by both writers are interesting ones, the arguments for the motion, in my eyes, more so than against.

My natural instinct is to say no to the idea. Losing Auschwitz to nature would, in my eyes, be as simple as forgetting the events that went on there. I feel that this should not happen, and that Auschwitz should remain as a reminder for all those who have fascist ideologies. The current return of fascist thinking across Europe (including in Britain, with the BNP) is something which should not be ignored. If there is no warning from history of the logical consequences of extremist thinking, then the orchestrators have nothing to fear. If, however, there remains a visible scar, a legacy more potent than what is found in books, then this is a powerful deterrant to the logical outcome of extreme fascist thinking.

In addition to this, I maintain it is a travesty to be willing lose something that is so embedded into history as Auschwitz is. ‘Hands on’ history is something which is powerful to younger generations. I know from my own experiences just how much a tour of the battlefields affected me when I was younger. It somehow made the whole First World War more real. In a similar way, I would imagine a trip to Auschwitz would put the whole thing into perspective, to make everything clearer to those who know little of genocide. Numbers on a page are ultimately meaningless, the famous phrase “one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic” serves to indicate this with succinct clarity. It is only be seeing, touching and experiencing can the horror (I was going to say the true horror, but this is impossible to really comprehend) be appreciated. My own thoughts are reasonably clear on the topic.

The counter-argument, provided by Robert Van Jan Pelt (who has a great name by the way), is interesting however. His assertion that we cannot ever really know the horrow of Auschwitz is true, but he uses this idea to indicate that the shell, as he calls it, should not become a drain on economic resources. He is in agreement that it should remain open as long as there remains survivors to focus their suffering onto something physical, but explains that this should be as far as Auschwitz should go, and that once the last survivor has died, then the appropriate time to let go of a historical burden has arrived. The physical collapse of Auschwitz would signal the time to erase such a travesty from memory.

Obviously I do not agree with Van Jan Pelt’s view, nor do I fully understand why such a thing needs to be erased from memory. In my mind it is something which should remain as a stark and bleak reminder of the destructive potential of mankind. In a similar manner to Rwanda which has preserved the remains of those killed in that genocide, so too Auschwitz should remain as the blot on the landscape for people to sit up and notice. Erasing Auschwitz from our memories is comparatively easy, it is the remembering it which is the hard part.

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