Friday 22 February 2019

Remembering the Holocaust and recalling why we could never vote SF

While we mark the liberation of Auschwitz, there are other ghosts who we will remember at the going down of the sun and in the morning

David Kelly confronts Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness. Photo Ann Hennessy.
David Kelly confronts Presidential candidate Martin McGuinness. Photo Ann Hennessy.

Olivia O'Leary

When you look back at your life and cringe at something you did, it's very often because your ego got in the way. Maybe if you'd left yourself out of it, you would have done it better.

I cringe when I remember the visit to Ireland in 1980 of Dr Karl Karstens, president of West Germany. He had been elected only a year earlier amid some controversy over his Nazi past - having joined Hitler's Brownshirt stormtroopers in the early 1930s.

He chose Ireland for his first state visit - an extraordinary courtesy. But I, by chance, came across a confidential Foreign Affairs briefing note to TDs.

The note said that Ireland may have been chosen for Dr Karsten's first visit because we didn't have an active Jewish lobby who would organise protests against him.

So, at a function where journalists were allowed to ask questions, I stood up and asked whether he had indeed chosen Ireland for this first visit because he wouldn't meet with protests about his Nazi past.

He said no. What else was he going to say? He couldn't insult his hosts. It was a really stupid question. If I had asked him directly about being a member of the Nazi stormtroopers, he would have been under some pressure to answer.

But I didn't do my job as a journalist properly. Maybe I was more interested in my grandstanding question than I was in his answer. When I sat down, my colleagues looked away, embarrassed.

But immediately, German reporters who had accompanied Dr Karstens came running over to me. What Jewish newspaper did I work for? What Jewish organisation was I a member of? Surely I was Jewish, they asked? I was astonished.

"Surely we are all Jewish on this question," I wanted to answer. But I decided I had done enough grandstanding for one day.

I could have asked the question better. But I am glad I did at least ask it. Because we must never forget. We may find it possible to forgive but we should never forget, not what the Nazis did, not what our own government did in refusing entry to so many Jews fleeing Hitler, nor indeed the pogrom against Jews in Limerick in 1904.

At the commemoration last Tuesday to mark the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz, there were only 300 survivors, as opposed to 1,500 ten years ago. At the next commemoration there may be none. Their families and Israel will never forget. But as those who have directly experienced the Holocaust die, there is a danger that the millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and dissenters from Nazism who were exterminated become another statistic, that the horror of their fate will be locked safely away in museums.

Already in this country, for everybody under 25, the over 3,700 killed in the North (over 1,700 of them killed by Republicans) are something their parents tell them about, something of which they have no personal memory. So it's hard to explain to them why so many people of my generation will find it almost impossible ever to vote Sinn Fein.

That's why David Kelly did us a favour when he thrust a photograph of his dead soldier father at Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and questioned him during the Presidential election.

Private Patrick Kelly was shot by the IRA at Ballinamore during the rescue of kidnapped supermarket boss Don Tidey. Private Kelly died defending the values of our democracy. He must not be forgotten.

As to the Holocaust, sometimes artists help us remember - and writers too. Despite the claim by sociologist Theodor Adorno that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, there are works of literature actually set in the camps.

There are books such as Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, which dares to imagine a scene in the gas chambers. Grossman, himself a Ukrainian Jew, describes how an unmarried Jewish woman doctor reassures a small lost boy, becoming a mother for the first time as the gas overwhelms first him and then her. It is an astonishing piece of writing.

In another chapter of the book, a Jewish mother who has become caught behind the German lines writes what she knows will be her last letter to her son in Moscow. Russian composer Vitaly Khodosh has written a short opera about it and Irish writer Bernard McLaverty has done the libretto. In all these different ways, we will remember.

The dead can't ask questions. So we must do it for them.

Olivia O'Leary's political column is broadcast each Tuesday on RTE Radio 1's Drivetime

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