This is what I wrote in my notebook as I sat, a few minutes later, at the feet of a statue of Goethe and looked out at the Holocaust Memorial across the road.

I make no apologies for its content or style.  The words seemed to flow onto the paper and I did nothing to stop them.

'We wander into dark places where we become not ourselves, inhabiting the shadows and dank, hidden passageways of human nature - our own and others’.  We almost seem to die when we are there because the smiles of the sun and of good things are not visible to us there.  There is no light where so many of our predecessors have been and where we follow.  So there are no flowers there and birds do not sing.

Sometimes even flowers and birds seem to know what we have yet to discover about ourselves and they leave us to our own hapless devices. 

It’s so dark and overgrown with melancholy there that, looking, we are blind and, though hearing, we are also deaf.  We are bewildered at the vigour of our frailty, at the sheer power we can exert when we are at our weakest.  We grope helplessly for a way to understand why, time and again, we are utterly defeated by our own humanity; why we cannot overcome our baser selves and, instead, constantly bequeath guilt and horror to those who follow us.

These are the unhappy places where we weep because we know that we will never learn.  No will in the world is stronger than the will of we who inhabit it but we know that, too often, its strength has led us very, very deeply into those unlit places where desire and will do not belong.

These are the places where beauty and grace, thought and compassion, lie dead and rotting at our feet.  And we know they belong to us and so we know that the stench is of us, too.  

We block the pathways to these places with grand monuments and memorials.  We have pretensions to remember our sins without being able to acknowledge the reasons for the torture, misery and death of which we ourselves are the wellspring.  And we do this because we cannot see, and have no desire to find out, where the soundless tracks behind the memorials lead us.

So we lead lives of quiet desperation and we look the other way.  That’s the way of it.

These awful places are not to be avoided, though.  The power of memory and of our own inadequacy ensures that, sometimes, there is no other direction in which to look.  This, too, is the way of it.  Our history compels us to look ourselves in the eye and in the heart; and, worst of all in this terrible place into which our conscience leads us, in the soul.

And, in the shadow of art and culture and civilisation….I stared terror and despair and death in the face and saw them as my own.  And the coldly mechanical means of slaughter  - the unspeakable, the unthinkable - were mine, too.

We conceal our guilt well, don’t we?  Moving from one day of getting and spending to the next would be impossible if we did not.

But, stripped of these everyday imperatives and naked in the shadow of a statue, I wanted to ask everyone - everyone passing by and everyone I know and everyone else - what would you have done?

Look inside for just a moment.  Dim all light and be silent for a while.  Do this and you will hear the screams as I did and you will see the starved and beaten bodies.

What would you have done?

What would you have done as the cattle trucks trundled by, full of silently terrified Jewish people?

What would you have done when you saw the unburied corpses of gypsies at the street-corner?

What would you have done as gay people were rounded up and beaten to death before your eyes?

What would you have done as the blind and deaf and disabled cried out to you from behind barbed wire?

It was not one person.  Nor was it a group of people within one nation or even that nation itself. 

It was you and I.

The most pernicious events in history - events that would have been impossible were humanity as enlightened as it believes itself to be - were devised and carried out by men and women as vulnerably human as you and me.

We were there, too. 

There is no pain like grief and we all died a little with the six million.

And those who follow us will descend into these terrifying depths again and there is nothing on Earth we can do to stop them.

In the end, they too will ask...What would you have done?

And no-one will answer because no-one knows.'


Ellie said...

My father, who did 25yrs military service, was part of the troops who went into the camps after they were 'liberated' -
Years later he was posted to Germany and we (my mother, sister and brother and me)went with him. I once asked him why he NEVER spoke German and he didn't respond. I found it strange as when in Africa he learned to speak swahili in a couple on months.
His driver was German, but he had to speak English when with my father. It wasn't until I was much older that he told me that he couldn't bring himself to speak the language when he had seen what Germans did to other germans and foreigners - he cried when he told me.

Ian Robinson said...

You are right Ellie; what your father knew and thought really was unthinkable and unspeakable.