I repeat. Sometime the moment will come when the importance of even this history crumbles. When this war becomes just as unreal as the First Crusade, as the Hundred Years’ War, as tribal disputes in the fertile prehistoric deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates. Nothing exceptional happened, people will say. A war. Simply a war. That is what it was, no less than that, but also no more. Nice subject for a novel, nicely rendered by a big budget movie. It was, they will say, a predictable step forwards in the technology of mass destruction; a new rung on the ladder of a sad but inevitable evolution. The first orchestrated genocide, and of importance solely because of that historical priority. Worth a line or two in an electronic book. Possibly people will create mythical figures, with half-invented characteristics: a Richard the Lionheart, a Wilhelm Tell. Perhaps Hitler will become a tragic hero or a suitable character for a huge box office hit musical. There is always a need of that sort of tragedy: a sick man dies, convinced of being right, in a bunker, while the world burns. No different from a Nero, a Caligula, a hazy classical reference that for some reason or other gives you the shivers. The stuff of legend, just like those legends about that once wandering and then locally exterminated tribe, the Jews, from which a few peculiar fools claim they are descended.
It happened. It is over. Nothing can change that. Nothing can ever make up for it. Certainly not an old token Jew in a grammar school classroom, wringing his hands in front of wooden desks with love poetry as carved into them. If we, the survivors, are heroes, then heroes are just about as scarce as chewing gum wrappers, runaway pets or lost car keys. But in Berlin we are virtually impossible to find; we have emigrated to America or Israel. This city, this country became too painful for us. Today’s young Germans, they can reel off the facts. Himmler: was a chicken farmer and schoolmaster, owned a signed copy of Mein Kampf bound in tanned human skin. Characteristic quotation: ‘We want cannon; butter is superfluous.’ It is easy: the schoolgirl reads her way through the prescribed list, she writes her politically correct paper, perhaps she can increase her score by allowing the ink of her hand-written essay to run where the passages are most striking – a pipette filled with a little tap water can work wonders. No, I am not being cynical. This is the ritual that typifies the transition to a German who is historically aware, the sort that reads Paul Celan, the sort that systematically and with total comprehension works his way through Primo Levi’s oeuvre, the sort that goes for a delicious kosher meal in Restaurant Oren and stares in amazement at the waitresses: genuine Jewesses, right in the centre of the city.
What’s wrong with that? I hear you ask, Paul.
What is wrong is the identification with the victim. Nothing has been done to them, those beautiful young Germans. That is the simple truth. Tears are out of order. And this too: if they had been born a couple of decades earlier, they too would have stood in the street and spat, that’s for sure. Their parents were never in any danger. Of course there will never be another pogrom in Germany – there are hardly any Jews in Germany any more.
Further: Levi, once he had set down his words, had had enough of this world. He left. These young men, young women, they continue to live. They have no right to speak. They are morally inferior. They are Germans. And because they have made up a little theory about suffering, do we then have to fit into that pigeonhole? They have made a role out of the survivor, a literary convention – the survivor is a moral bridgehead like Wiesel, the survivor is sober-minded like Levi, precocious and innocent like Frank, as bright as any of those three. People don’t want to hear anything else. The survivor is someone whose duty it is to affect us, is someone we can admire or weep for. Consider the collective self-purification, look at the elderly ladies in their fur coats shuffling along in great queues at the cinema, ready to fight for a good place in the posh seats, and the tears send the mascara running down their cheeks and they feel no shame, for this is ritual purgation, this is baptism by Holocaust, Holy Communion courtesy of Spielberg. On leaving, those affected support each other, the shattered ladies tear the wigs off each other’s heads in mourning, and then they talk about it afterwards and parade their public remorse, at Kempinski’s perhaps, or in Café Einstein, and: ‘Sehen wir uns am Sonnabend?’ Are they really more human than before when they re-emerge from the cinema? Even for our everyday sins G*d provides a three-day Yom Kippur – are three hours in the cinema then sufficient to purify the German people? Truth is not desecrated by untruth, but by obscuration. It is for the survivors that they weep, for them that they pray and from them they beg for forgiveness. But then they feel that the survivors in their turn must be worthy of that devotion – then they have to be saints, nothing less is possible. That is fiction: that being saved means that one is chosen and that the noblesse of the circumstances oblige. The survivors are human beings, human beings like anybody else; they can be malicious and boring and aimless and self-interested.
Survival: that is the material out of which myths are fashioned and it is myth that the German self-purifiers are in search of – the Platonic pairs of love-hate, good-evil, beauty-ugliness, considered wisdom-reckless stupidity. If you thirst for myth, then read the classics, but leave me and my terrible biography alone. One group of people killed another group of people. That is quite terrible enough, I would think.
What is it with those terms – as if they could contain an occurrence, an experience? Terms that do not belong to us. ‘Holocaust’: a word derived from the Greek holokauston, which is a translation of the Hebrew olah from the Torah. A religious word: an offering completely consumed by fire, a cremation. Why this particular word, why this second-hand corruption? Why the implication that this entire occurrence is a ritual burnt offering, which would have been pleasing to the Lord G*d? That it was anything other than blind hatred, savage destruction?
History – and that is the sole truth about history – history is the lie told by the present to make sense of the past.
From Omega Minor (2004)
By Paul Verhaeghen
Translated by John Irons
First published in The Low Countries, 2008