Echoes of tragedy | Sunday Observer
Memorial to the darkest chapter in history

Echoes of tragedy

5 February, 2023
Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau was through what prisoners called the “Gate of Death.” Auschwitz was a major railway hub—a convenient location for the Nazis to bring Jews from all over Europe
Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau was through what prisoners called the “Gate of Death.” Auschwitz was a major railway hub—a convenient location for the Nazis to bring Jews from all over Europe

As you traverse the streets of these once bustling metropolises, the emptiness of the buildings will weigh heavily upon your heart. Your soul will urge you to still your tongue, to hold back the words that seek to escape. And so you will walk on, in reverent silence, as though honouring a solemn pact.

These structures bear the mark of history, a legacy that cannot be erased. They bear witness to the atrocities of one man, whose name has become synonymous with evil. A man who strode the earth like a colossus, casting a shadow of fear and hatred over all who crossed his path. His name was Adolf Hitler, and though he has been consigned to the dustbin of history, his legacy still haunts us today.

What once was a place of unspeakable terror now stands as a shrine to the darkest chapter in human history. The Auschwitz concentration camp, a complex of 48 sites built and operated by Nazi Germany during World War II, serves as a testament to the atrocities committed against countless innocent lives. Its walls hold the memories of three buildings, the original concentration camp, the extermination centre, and the labour camp, each a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.

Could there be a more haunting period in the annals of time than the lead up to World War II? The world may never wish to remember it, but the echoes of that terrible time continue to resound in our literature. The words Auschwitz and Holocaust have become synonymous with the atrocities committed during that era, and no author who has written of that time can escape the shadow of their haunting presence.

In his work Day, Romanian-born American Jewish writer Elie Wiesel wrote: “A novel about Auschwitz is not a novel—or else it is not about Auschwitz.” This speaks to the enormity of the atrocities committed at Auschwitz and the lasting impact they have had on our world. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is an international memorial day on January 27 commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated six million Jewish people, five million Slavs, three million ethnic Poles, 200,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on November 1, 2005, during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust.

Chronicles of horror: the unfathomable truths of holocaust literature

‘Assignment to Slave Labour’, Auschwitz, Poland, c.1940. 
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust survivors at the Auschwitz concentration camp during ceremonies on Monday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 2020. Arbelt Macht Frei means ‘Work sets you free’ in German.

In her The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945, Lucy Schildkret Dawidowicz elaborates how the Holocaust came to be. The term holocaust comes from the Greek term holókaustos: hólos, ‘whole’ and kaustós, ‘burnt offering’.

The task of documenting the full extent of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust through film and literature is an almost impossible one. While one may be able to watch all the films, the books would take a lifetime to read. Yet, even today, the Holocaust continues to inspire new works, with survivors often serving as the authors.

The question of verisimilitude, the quality of appearing true or real, is one that haunts Holocaust literature. In Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust, Sheryl Silver Ochayon grapples with this dilemma, asking, “Can this horrible experience be transformed into an aesthetic experience? Will readers who seek escape in books be ready to confront the terrible realities within?”

Elie Wiesel, a leading critic of Holocaust literature, raises similar questions. “Auschwitz defeated culture, and then it defeated art,” he wrote. “The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in its ashes.”

Silenced voices: the struggle to convey the horrors of Auschwitz”

Theodor Adorno spoke of the difficulty of finding the right words to describe the horrors of Auschwitz, referring to poetry written in its aftermath as barbaric. He criticised the attempts of artists to capture the event that shook the world to its core. Many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps have noted the inadequacy of words in describing their experiences. They use expressions like ‘indescribable’, ‘inexpressible’, and ‘words are not enough’ to convey the terror they lived through.

Despite the difficulties, creativity remains the only cathartic means of expressing even the most traumatic experiences. When it comes to the Holocaust, a new language has been born. Holocaust literature encompasses various genres, with a significant portion written by victims and survivors, including posthumously published works and texts translated into English. There are also fake survivor accounts and works written by others based on the experiences of victims and survivors.

Echoes of survival: unveiling the personal accounts of the Holocaust”

Amid the devastating destruction wrought by the Holocaust, a glimmer of hope shines through the personal accounts of survivors. Their words serve as a beacon of resilience, capturing their unbreakable spirit and unwavering determination to live, to endure, and to uphold the remnants of their humanity amidst the inhumanity. These tales take the form of diaries, stories, and poems, offering readers a glimpse into the lives of individuals with recognisable desires, passions, and sorrows.

The narratives humanise the countless victims of the Holocaust, bringing to life historical events with a vividness that transcends mere statistics. They offer a rich storehouse of facts and experiences, weaving a tapestry of courage and defiance against the tyranny of Nazi rule. The bravery displayed by Jews and non-Jews alike, in resisting the Nazi regime, is a testament to the power of the human spirit. From acts of overt rebellion to quiet demonstrations of resistance, these stories provide evidence of the victims’ refusal to submit to Nazi domination. They have now become a repository of remarkable tales, a legacy of courage and defiance in the face of overwhelming oppression.

Remembering, honouring, and learning

The solemn commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day serves as a gentle reminder of the atrocities of the past. The world remembers the lives that were lost, the lives that were shattered, the lives that will never be the same. It is a day to pay homage to the survivors, to the brave souls who, against all odds, persevered and found the courage to carry on. Their stories of survival, their tales of courage and hope, must not be lost to time.

In literature, Holocaust lives on, its legacy indelible, its memory eternal. Its presence in our modern-day books, films, and narratives serves as a constant reminder of the atrocities that occurred and the lessons that must be learned. The world must never forget the horrors of Holocaust and must strive to ensure that such evil is never allowed to happen again.

The significance of remembering the Holocaust lives on, transcending time and anniversaries. The stories of survival and tragedy must not be forgotten, for they serve as a reminder of the atrocities that humanity is capable of and the importance of ensuring such acts are never repeated. The echoes of the Holocaust continue to reverberate in literature, keeping its legacy alive, and connecting us to the world’s past. The world must strive towards creating a future where the evil that took place at Auschwitz and other concentration camps is never repeated, where the memories of the victims live on in reverence and the lessons of history are not forgotten.

So on this day, let us pause and remember, let us honour and pay homage to the victims and survivors of Holocaust, and let us vow to never forget the lessons of the past.


Must-Read Books

Our selection of five books offers a comprehensive look at the Holocaust, encompassing a range of perspectives and experiences. From survivor accounts to historical examinations, these books serve as a starting point for understanding and remembering this tragedy. Each one provides a unique insight into the complexities of the Holocaust, making them essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this dark chapter in history.

Among the Righteous by Robert Satloff

Thousands of people have been honored for saving Jews during the Holocaust -- but not a single Arab. Looking for a hopeful response to the plague of Holocaust denial sweeping across the Arab and Muslim worlds, Robert Satloff sets off on a quest to find the Arab hero whose story will change the way Arabs view Jews, themselves, and their own history.

The story of the Holocaust’s long reach into the Arab world is difficult to uncover, covered up by desert sands and desert politics. We follow Satloff over four years, through eleven countries, from the barren wasteland of the Sahara, where thousands of Jews were imprisoned in labor camps; through the archways of the Mosque in Paris, which may once have hidden 1700 Jews; to the living rooms of octogenarians in London, Paris and Tunis. The story is very cinematic; the characters are rich and handsome, brave and cowardly; there are heroes and villains. The most surprising story of all is why, more than sixty years after the end of the war, so few people -- Arab and Jew -- want this story told.

After Such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman

As the Holocaust recedes in time, the guardianship of its legacy is being passed on from its survivors and witnesses to the next generation. How should they, in turn, convey its knowledge to others? What are the effects of a traumatic past on its inheritors? And what are the second-generation’s responsibilities to its received memories?

In this meditation on the long aftermath of atrocity, Eva Hoffman -- a child of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust with the help of neighbours, but whose entire families perished -- probes these questions through personal reflections, and through broader explorations of the historical, psychological, and moral implications of the second-generation experience. She examines the subterranean processes through which private memories of suffering are transmitted, and the more willful stratagems of collective memory. She traces the “second generation’s” trajectory from childhood intimations of horror, through its struggles between allegiance and autonomy, and its complex transactions with children of perpetrators. As she guides us through the poignant juncture at which living memory must be relinquished, she asks what insights can be carried from the past to the newly problematic present, and urges us to transform potent family stories into a fully informed understanding of a forbidding history.

Two Rings by Millie Werber and Eve Keller

Judged only as a World War Two survivor’s chronicle, Millie Werber’s story would be remarkable enough. Born in central Poland in the town of Radom, she found herself trapped in the ghetto at the age of fourteen, a slave labourer in an armaments factory in the summer of 1942, transported to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, before being marched to a second armaments factory. She faced death many times; indeed she was certain that she would not survive. But she did.

Many years later, when she began to share her past with Eve Keller, the two women rediscovered the world of the teenage girl Millie had been during the war. Most important, Millie revealed her most precious private memory: of a man to whom she was married for a few brief months. He was -- if not the love of her life -- her first great unconditional passion. He died, leaving Millie with a single photograph taken on their wedding day, and two rings of gold that affirm the presence of a great passion in the bleakest imaginable time.