Tuesday 11 December 2018

Diary: History tells us that the unimaginable can come true. We'd do well to remember that

DARK PAST: This picture taken just after the liberation of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) by the Soviet army in January 1945 shows children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Nazi concentration camp. Poland’s Senate has waded into the most dangerous territory of all, the legislation of memory. Photo: AP
DARK PAST: This picture taken just after the liberation of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) by the Soviet army in January 1945 shows children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Nazi concentration camp. Poland’s Senate has waded into the most dangerous territory of all, the legislation of memory. Photo: AP

Fergal Keane

My friend Roman Halter was a hardy character. He detested bulls**t and was never afraid to call it out when he heard it, no matter how high or mighty his interlocutor. The first time I met him he was in a furious argument with a Rabbi. I forget now the root of the dispute but Roman was unrelenting. He knew his truth and held fast. Against his relentless marshalling of uncomfortable facts the Rabbi was rendered helpless.

Surviving the Lodz ghetto, the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Stutthof, the bombing of Dresden and the forced march by the SS in the dying days of the war, required a certain amount of luck, great physical and mental strength and immense courage. Roman had all of these qualities in abundance. He was a strapping 14-year-old when he was sent into the ghetto along with his family. Roman alone survived the war and came to England with a group of other Jewish survivors, the "Boys" who settled into their new country and made successful lives. They were refugees, speaking a foreign language, traumatised by war and landing on an alien shore. Behind them lay a devastated Europe that was already being divided between east and west, between the hopeful vision of democracy, economic unity and respect for human rights, and the tyranny of Soviet imperialism behind the Iron Curtain.

Nearly two decades after the fall of communism, and 60 years after the defeat of the Nazis, I went with Roman back to his old homeplace in Poland. It occupied a place in his memory that was still burnished with the glow of long ago summers. In the fields around Chodecz they gathered strawberries in June and mushrooms in September.

A small town, in the west of Poland, Chodecz was not a remote Shtetl in which the Jews lived in a confined, self-contained world, but a place where they were integrated into the local community and where, despite the growing drumbeats of hatred from neighbouring Germany, and the simmering anti-Semitism in the Polish body politic, they felt secure. The Halters spoke Russian, German and Polish, as well as Yiddish, the mother tongue of Roman's grandmother. In later life, Roman would sometimes speak angrily about his father's failure to remove the family to safety before the Nazis arrived. But Max Halter could not comprehend the exterminatory horror that was about to descend. Who could imagine then a plan to wipe an entire people from the face of the earth?

But history is full of the unimaginable come true. We would do well to remember this in our own times. Nothing is impossible. Nothing that has happened cannot come again. In a different guise perhaps, according to different plans and by the means of different masters. But the logic of exterminatory hatred pollutes our planet still.

Returning to Chodecz with Roman was a bitter sweet affair. He took me to the lake where his mother taught him to swim, the same lake where he watched an SS officer shoot a friend of his. And we went to his old home and knocked on the door to be met with suspicion and rejection. It was occupied now by a policeman and his family and they feared that Roman had come back to claim the property. He was a ghost from a past they did not know but which might upend their lives. Afterwards, Roman was angry and distant, one of those rare times when his energy sapped away and his equanimity vanished.

The other was when - during the making of a film about his life - I played him a recording of Hitler's infamous speech in the Reichstag in January, 1940: "Today I will once more be a prophet. If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth and this the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

Roman flinched, then swore: "Bastards and criminals."

I thought of our visit to Poland on the recent Holocaust Memorial Day - January 27 - and of how when Roman tried to go back in the immediate aftermath of the war he discovered that Jews were no longer welcome in Chodecz. Of the 800 Jews who lived there before the war, only four survived and none of these ever went back to settle.

Poland suffered terribly under Nazi occupation. An estimated two million Poles - apart from the Jewish Poles who were killed - died under German rule. Unlike Vichy France there was no official regime of cooperation. Many Poles risked their own lives to protect and hide Jews.

But there were also numerous instances of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust and attacks by Poles against their Jewish neighbours. The notorious massacre at Jedwabne in 1941 in which an estimated 1,600 Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours is a case in point.

It is that haunting legacy which now troubles Poland so much that the ruling Law and Justice Party is seeking to ban any assertion that the Polish nation is "responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich". With big boots, the government has waded into the most dangerous territory of all - the legislation of memory. The fear is that the prosecutors will go after those who have courageously exposed the complicity of some Poles in atrocious acts of murder during the Holocaust.

As we know on our own island, the past deserves a rigorous investigation by open minds, a willingness to explore the nuances and moral challenges of life lived in a state of absolute terror, above all, the courage to look at the cold facts and not seek to either deny outright or twist into a more palatable narrative. The Polish legislation is being pushed by a populist right-wing Government but it is part of a wider international trend that infects left and right and seeks to re-frame the past in order to advance the political ambitions of the present.

The greatest crisis of our age is not the threat of nuclear weapons or even climate change - terrifying as they both are - but the steady retreat from rationality, the idea that truth is what the powerful legislate it to be; it is felt in the repetition of lies that are believed and regurgitated by partisan masses, in the contempt for the enlightenment values of rational inquiry and discourse.

Throughout history, humankind has shown an exceptional ability to create necessary fictions that bolster the origin myths of nations and peoples.

Despite all the suffering caused by this, we have not learned yet that in ignoring the darker claims of the past, we risk no end of trouble. Little wonder that intolerance according to race, religion and creed are on the rise everywhere.

Sunday Independent

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