Thursday, 3 December 2009


I rarely disagree with Norm, but I'm not sure about his post titled Straw Lerman regarding Antony Lerman's view of the Demjanjuk trial. It begins:

Talk about inventing an argument so that you've got something to write to the contrary. Antony Lerman has found a reason for worrying about the Demjanjuk trial. It's that the trial could be 'ratcheting up expectations of some final closure'. Lerman explains:

This, for me, is the major flaw in the process – encouraging people to believe that we have come to the end of dealing with the consequences of the Holocaust. As if history is now done and dusted. Or that closing the door on the last trial makes further reckoning with the past impossible. The hunt for Nazi war criminals, which always attracts huge international attention, has greatly contributed to this distortion of reality. It reduces our image of the Holocaust to the unspeakable acts of the evil criminal, who is then tracked down, exposed and put on trial so that a final reckoning can take place in a public, adversarial confrontation with the memories of Holocaust survivors.

It may satisfy some visceral need to see the individual as the repository of evil, a symbol of the horrors, who is then removed from society, but it's too neat. All the complexities of the Demjanjuk case prove that.

I don't like to overstate things, but what useless verbiage that is. To try an alleged participant in a genocide that killed millions and still stands as a symbol of modern-day barbarism in no way implies expectation of final closure with the trial, or supports a belief that the consequences of that epochal horror will be concluded by it...

I wish Norm were right but my hunch is that the Denjanjuk trial will be seen by many as a closure of sorts. After all there are a great many people who actively want a closure, if only because lack of closure implies an obligation.

Thank God we can forget about that lot then, they think. And now they can stop whining about it too. And using it as an excuse.

Haven't people always done this and is this not why closures are suspect? There are few, if any, closures of memory or the imagination. but there are certainly closures of the will.

When disaster strikes someone, or indeed a people, there is action. Some help, some weep, some stay quiet and some rejoice. Schadenfreude is not an uncommon feeling. Being obliged to feel guilty for even a smidgeon of it, is a burden and nobody likes carrying a burden. Lay it down!

The disaster having happened and the bodies having been counted, the next stage is documentation. Who are the dead? Where are they? Who did it? How? Where are the survivors? What will become of them? This produces evidence, trials, and political solutions.

The next stage is personal account as memoir. I was there, I experienced it, this is what it was like as narrative. This is my story. Forming a story is already a modification that enlarges some facts and shrinks others. Some facts it forgets altogether. Stories follow certain archetypal patterns, so do these stories.

The stage after that is straight literature. Fiction. A certain distance is required for all art. The remarkable thing about, say, Radnóti's last poems is that he could be both there on the death march and still be elsewhere in his mind. He could maintain distance. But that is poetry, which is not exactly fiction. Constructing a novel in which the documented takes second place to the invented moves the event still further off. Survivors might find such fictionalised accounts disturbing. Though they themselves may, for sanity's sake, have started to see their experiences on a fictional plane. Art is, after all, an attempt at sanity, at giving the shock of events form and meaning.

The next stage is cliché, commonplace, myth: the lay figure. Ken Livingstone accusing a doorstepping reporter of being 'a concentration camp guard'. I wasn't expecting The Spanish Inquisition! was the Python joke. What was the Inquisition? Three absurd cardinals in a living room. I wasn't expecting the Holocaust! would not have worked then, but give it twenty years and, who knows?

Myth-cliché is the last stage before events break up altogether.

Then, as myth becomes commonplace and, eventually a joke, the original event is questioned. The questions become respectable. So we get revision. Perhaps the whole thing never happened like that. Perhaps the bad people weren't all that bad, nor the innocent so innocent.

That is the stage we are at with Twelve Jewish Children and with the acceptance of Islamic anti-Semitism. It never happened. They are all liars. They capitalise on it. They are all headcases. They deserved it.

So now the last of the last real characters in the documentary, of the evidential stage, is brought to trial. Rightly brought to trial, in my opinion, because it is the trial and not the sentence that matters here.

And no, it is not a closure, but it is an excuse for closure. And that is all some people need.

Now at last will you shut up! they'll hiss. Look, there's nothing there. Perhaps there never was. Schadenfreude is not an uncommon feeling. Being obliged to feel guilty, for even a smidgeon of it, was a burden and nobody liked carrying a burden. Lay it down!

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

Sadly, I suspect that it's the way of the world that horrors are heaped upon horrors and that the horror of the holocaust will one day be overtaken by events, like all horrors before it, by an even greater horror, and so on ad infinitum.