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…and while I’m here March 11, 2005

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
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…and on March 11th, is it awfully rude of me to express even a tiny hint of cynicism regarding anything that commemorates victims of acts of terrorism and the acts themselves? But a link I’ve been sent does make me worry that these commemorative events might have a touch of the chocolate teapot about them. Which is not to say that people shouldn’t get together and talk about what troubles them and commemorate those who have been killed for the simple fact that they existed, but my worry is that the less these occasions are, if you like, ‘individualised,’ the less effective they seem, to me, at least, to become. What I am absolutely not saying is that we should not point out that large numbers of people were killed at Atocha a year ago today or, for example, that over a million people met their gruesome deaths at Auschwitz. But sometimes I worry that figures have an obfuscatory property all of their own. When we hear that over a million died at Auschwitz, can we really understand the enormity of that figure? Is it too horrible to compute, too massive to be comprehensible? Do we unknowingly diminish the horror in our minds? What is a million people? Is that everyone one has even met in one’s life? Or far more? So just for that reason I would like to express a tiny, hopefully not-TOO-cynical-sounding cautionary note.

The first time I visited/commemorated a scene of horror was when I visited Auschwitz in 1992. It was a glorious summer day and the place was overrun with tourists. I had had no ‘personal’ connection to the Holocaust. None of my relatives/friends/acquaintances was killed. Could I even begin to manage an understanding of the scale of what had gone on? What I did, without any ‘intention’ at the time, and, in fact, worrying that it was perhaps extremely incorrect to do so, was take a photograph of one of Auschwitz’s victims. And, subsequently, I am so glad I did. It was a photograph of one man, of whom I knew nothing but for what was written on his camp photograph. He was number 16174, was a doctor, was called Łukasz Chodynicki, was born on 16.07.1904, arrived at Auschwitz on 24.05.1941 and died on 22.03.1942. His face expresses nothing much, perhaps just numbness. But his photograph, his story, helped explain things more to me than when stories are depersonalised. Obviously we can’t hear every story, but we must hear as many as we can, so that those who might, perhaps unbelievably, incomprehensibly, have difficulty understanding some of the horror that victims of hatred are faced with can understand that just a little better.



1. Justine Chodynicki - March 11, 2008


My name is Justine Chodynicki from England.

I came across the above, whilst surfing the net for info on my family name.

Lukasz was my Great Grandfathers Brother, I would be eternally grateful if you could supply a copy of his photo.


Kind Regards & Best Wishes

Justine Chodynicki

2. BiB - March 11, 2008

Hello Justine,

It would be an honour. I’ve just ransacked my old photos and was livid when I thought I must have mislaid it. But I have found it, and I have changed my mind a bit about what his face expresses. I’d say it’s a mixture of fear and defiance.

In any case, I’ll scan it in and e-mail it to you. I’m only sorry it’s not better quality.

3. narrowback - March 12, 2008

a mitzvah

there’s a quote that’s floated around for years tho’ there are many who dispute the origin. “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths – a statistic” – Stalin

4. pleite - March 12, 2008

Narrowback, and whether Stalin said it or not, it rings true, doesn’t it, as bonkersly counterintuitive as it sounds? But dehumanise/depersonalise and I’m sure, somehow, people manage to brush the horror off, make it unreal. Put names and faces to it, whatever the “it” is, and it becomes much more tangible. Mr. Chodynicki’s photo is looking up at me this very second. And that helps me to comprehend the tragic and ignore the statistical.

Viewed the other way round, I sometimes wonder if this is somehow what drives the press, or what makes such stories in the press popular, to obsessively pursue one family’s tragedy when a child – it is usually a child – goes missing. I think people’s empathy with this single family somehow manages to take their mind off other evils. If you can imagine that this one case is somehow the worst thing in the world, the world perhaps seems like not such a wicked place.

5. narrowback - March 12, 2008

It certainly does ring true and when I first came across it was one of those moments when I put the book aside and pondered it for more than a few minutes. For me, it captures that line of thinking you described above…how an episode of mass horror is oft rendered abstract by its scope and scale. My experience is also similar to yours in that I find it helps me to grapple with and better comprehend “the whole” when I can place it in the context of a single individual.

When you visit the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. you have the option of drawing a “passport” of a victim selected at random . IIRC you can insert it into a reader at various points along the chronological layout of the exhibit and it gives (via a text screen) you a brief description of what was happening in the life of the victim at that point…it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been there but that’s how I recall it.

With regard to your second argument – while I agree with your premise, I also have to express a “hmmm” (gee, does that translate from american English to british English?) as well. There’s been a recent and in fact on-going debate on this side of the pond that the media is very selective in its choice of which victim becomes the subject of its coverage…favoring attractive middle class anglo-saxons over poor minorities. Far more of the latter go missing/murdered/exploited than the former but rarely get any press coverage. The cynic in me starts to ponder the supply/demand aspect of the debate.
Another favorite questionably Stalin quote is the purported reply to an expression of concern by a foreign ministry official during WW2. The official – more likely a politburo member like Molotov or Malenkov – advised that a certain action would alienate the Vatican. Stalin “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

6. pleite - March 12, 2008

I’m not sure whether the British press does the manipulation by choosing the celebrated victim and Britain, even if we think it is very ethnically mixed, is obviously not on a par with the States and so I don’t think race is such an issue. There’s actually one very high-profile case at the moment, and that’s a regular white working-class family affected. Perhaps the astronomically famous case of Maddy last year got extra mileage from her parents being well-off professionals. Anyway, for the press, it’s about selling papers or getting high TV ratings. Don’t quite know what it’s about for the people who get swept along in the hysteria. Need for drama? Need to empathise? Dunno.

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