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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.