Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Robespierre and Memory in France: Reflections on a Debate

Robespierre circa 1790 (image is in the
public domain)
Maximilien Robespierre's role in the French Revolution has fascinated historians, ideologues, politicians and history buffs for a long time. He has been the subject of serious scholarly works and has been represented in popular culture. This past June, a sharp-edged debate arose in the French press over Robespierre's place in the Revolution, specifically during the Reign of Terror. To Americans reading the back-and-forth in Le Figaro, France's center-right daily newspaper, it might seem like a tempest in a teapot. To the French, who have witnessed the current Republic struggle with questions about the future of the European Union, the plight of the sons and daughters of immigrants living on the fringes of the nation's cities, shocking acts of terrorist violence and a resurgent right-wing Front National, the question of what Robespierre's participation in the Terror should mean has been taken seriously.

How did this recent debate over Robespierre's place in the national memory begin? It was through an avenue that French public intellectuals have used to engage the nation since the late nineteenth century -- through a public declaration addressed to a person in power. In this case, it was a June 14 letter to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo that was signed by thirty scholars and teachers calling for a street, place or square in the capital to be named in Robespierre's honor. What is central to this request is its determination to combat the ill-repute to which Robespierre's name has been held for a long time.

The signatories of the letter refer to twentieth century politics as the starting point to argue that Robespierre deserves this recognition. At the end of World War II when the Paris city government was in the hands of the socialists and communists, both parties supported the idea of creating a "Place Robespierre." The return of the right to power in 1951 scuttled the plan, leaving Robespierre's memory to be disconnected from that of  Republican heroes like Jean Jaurès. The result, in their view, has been unfortunate, since it has amounted to a rejection of France's revolutionary history. They argue that other major cities in France, like Marseille, have established places or streets carrying Robespierre's name. They simply ask, "Why not Paris?"

The controversial nature of the French Revolution has been a mainstay of French political and academic life for over two centuries. The signatories seek to correct misperceptions of Robespierre and insist that he was never a "dictator" or "deus et machina" (this term and italics belong to the signatories) of the revolutionary drama, asserting that "...Robespierre had defended, with his partisans, a real political project founded on the will to defend and to construct a Republic of which the first principle had to be social equality." Besides, in their view, controversial actors from both sides of the revolutionary drama, including King Louis XVI and Danton, have been honored with "bridges, avenues and squares" that "transmit their memory."

The letter places Robespierre within the intellectual history of the eighteenth century. He was an admirer and "heir" of the Enlightenment who believed that the principles of liberty and equality could be balanced; he was a stringent opponent of arbitrary behavior of functionaries of the state; he was in favor of the rights of Jews and against slavery; he was against capital punishment. In addition, he was, according to the letter, "a product of the contradictions and complexities of the times," but was also dedicated to "genuine republican convictions that should be made known to the public." This last point is echoed in the final plea to "reconcile" Robespierre's place within the First Republic with that of ordinary Parisians.

In an interview published a week after the letter to Hidalgo was published, Patrice Gueniffey provided a rebuttal of the claims made in the letter. Gueniffey is an academic at the L'Ecole des hautes etudes en science sociales (EHESS). He was asked questions that gave him the opportunity to highlight the cleavages in the politics, intellectual culture and historiography of the Revolution that have roiled generations: "What place does Robespierre occupy in the Republican memory?" "Do the petitioners who demand a street in Robespierre's name reflect a classic vindication of the communists?" "Was Robespierre responsible for the Terror?" "Would you say that the Great Terror was a proto-totalitarian experiment?" The questions played into preconceived notions of Robespierre held by many in the media and in academia.

Gueniffey's response began with a nod to the historiography of the late nineteenth century, when a "republican consensus" was formed that was based "on the exclusion of Robespierre from the pantheon of the great men of the decade 1789-1799." In his view, this consensus on the Revolution placed men like Robespierre and his ally turned nemesis Georges Danton into two camps: the first being comprised of those who defended the nation from invasion by the Prussians and Austrians and who resisted Robespierre (Danton and others) and the second including only Robespierre, who "embodied" the civil war and the Terror. For his efforts, Danton was thereby honored with a statue in Paris in 1889, the centennial of the Revolution. Robespierre was then declared to be at fault for the Revolution's most extreme failures.

Robespierre was a singular force in the events of the Terror in Gueniffey's intepretation. For example, Robespierre was responsible for Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794), which suppressed due process for those accused of crimes. The Great Terror originated at this point and let loose the guillotine. Gueniffey insists that the Great Terror was the "direct will" of Robespierre whereby it became "an inherent part of the Revolution," having become less an instrument of punishing enemies but was now meant only to "paralyze the opposition."

The politics of postwar France also factor in Gueniffey's response to the letter. In his view, the French Communist Party and its followers (he seems to be implying that all of the petitioners fall into this category) not only are driving the call for recognition of Robespierre but are also responsible for creating a "paradox" in their argument: "...these petitioners belittle the historical role of the Incorruptible in order to defend him. They shrink [his role in the Revolution] in order to render him more presentable." In short, he believes that they are embarking on a "rehabilitation" of the Terror without taking responsibility for it. This point allows Gueniffey to make the broader claim that the debate around Robespierre carries deeper ideological ramifications, the most forceful being that Robespierre presented a model that was copied word-for-word by Lenin and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution: "the rhetoric regarding the [need for a] scapegoat, the punitive tribunals, a system of surveillance and of informing [on the citizenry]." The only factor that separates Robespierre from Lenin and the Bolsheviks is the fact that the Jacobins failed "to form a homogenous and centralized party."

Le Figaro has done a service to both sides by publishing the letter to the mayor in support of recognition of Robespierre and the response from a prominent opponent (the downside being that the content of the interview questions Patrice Gueniffey answered were leading and were not of a dispassionate nature). At the very least, this controversy should open up new avenues for reevaluating Robespierre's place in France's national memory. A superficial glance at responses to the current debate on Twitter reveals that the French have overwhelmingly internalized the generalizations made by Gueniffey. A sampling of attitudes on Twitter does not amount to a scientific study, but it does point to a general mood that prevails regarding Robespierre.

The petitioners make the better case that Robespierre's role in the Revolution and in the national memory should be reconsidered. Of course, naming a street or place after the revolutionary leader is the immediate goal of the letter's signatories and the recognition of this by the mayor's office would be an important start toward providing an intellectual space for a new narrative of Robespierre to emerge that would challenge the superficiality of Gueniffey's interpretation.

One way to view this problem is by considering how both sides reference the chronology of the Revolution to make their respective cases. The letter to Mayor Hidalgo is a call to consider Robespierre within a broader context that would include his intellectual grounding in Enlightenment thought  and his politics before the Terror, which included stances against the death penalty and slavery. In this interpretation of revolutionary events, Robespierre's pre-1789 life would have to be taken into consideration as a starting point if a fair analysis is to be drawn. Certainly, the petitioners would have to explain Robespierre's role in the Terror, but would be able to do so more convincingly if the full scope of the revolutionary drama was folded into the recognition that those in leadership positions were driven in many respects by events far outside of their control. If Robespierre used a particular ideological framework to make sense of the whirlwind around him, that does not make him an unusual historical figure. But that is only part of the story.

The problem with the Gueniffey's argument is that he pins his interpretation of Robespierre on a tiny sliver of chronology--1793 to 1794--that strains to support generalizations that rest on an assumption that ideas (dangerous in regards to Robespierre) float freely throughout history regardless of specific political, cultural and social contexts. This allows him to place Robespierre and Lenin in the same category and to conflate the French and Soviet revolutionary traditions. The result of the mixing and matching of two complex revolutionary eras obscures the origins of modern totalitarianism and makes it appear to be based upon decisions made by one French revolutionary during a tumultuous, violent period of the late eighteenth century.

Curiously, Robespierre's standing as a historical figure gets a major boost though Gueniffey's argument. He sees Robespierre as ten feet tall; he was the driver of the Terror and is responsible for its most egregious excesses (in contrast to his claim that the petitioners have had to denigrate Robespierre's role in the Terror in order to save his reputation). The problem here is that the complexity of the Terror goes underappreciated if one places such a large degree of responsibility on the shoulders of one prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety.

The debate over Robespierre's legacy will not be over even if Mayor Hidalgo decides to ignore the letter of June 14. However, a positive response on her part would provide a space within which a discussion can ensue about how the Revolution and Republic should be memorialized. Such a debate should include and transcend the question of whether or not Robespierre deserves a street or public place in Paris.

Works Cited:

Corbière, Alexis. "Madame Hidalgo, une rue de Paris doit porter le nom de Robespierre," Le Figaro (14 juin 2016).

Perrault, Guillaume, "Gueniffey: 'Robespierre incarne d'une façon chimiquement pure l'idée de la table rase,'" Le Figaro (20 juin 2016).







Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Never Give Up!" Ben Ferencz and His Lifelong Defense of Human Rights



Prosecutor Ben Ferencz at The Einsatzgruppen Trial (circa 1947-8)
Photo: Creative Commons

Most Americans believe they live in a world that is on the brink of catastrophe. The media is saturated with images that seem to portend a future when war, terrorism and mass murder will destroy the relative comfort and peace that most of us take for granted. But what if there are people in our world who have witnessed the worst in human nature but have chosen to see a future when humanity will eventually triumph over those who deny basic human rights to millions in order to achieve power for selfish, destructive reasons?

I met such a person last night. His name is Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremburg Trials prosecutor who spoke at an event sponsored by Salem State University's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.


Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz (center) at "Nuremberg and Now: Genocide and the International Courts," sponsored by the Salem State University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. On Mr. Ferencz's right is Dr. Chris Mauriello, Co-Coordinator of the Center and Professor of History.  Bakhtiyar Tuzmukhamedov, Appeals Judge, UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia is on Mr. Ferencz's left. Salem, MA. April 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of Larry Davis.

I must admit that although I have taught history to college students for over twenty years, I knew precious little about Mr. Ferencz's accomplishments. A brief sketch: in 1943 he enlisted in the Army after graduating from Harvard Law School and under the command of General George S. Patton saw combat in some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. Upon being honorably discharged in 1945, he was recruited by General Telford Taylor to prosecute what became known as The Einsatzgruppen Case. His website points out the enormity of the crimes he and his associates uncovered at the war's end:

"Ferencz was sent with about fifty researchers to Berlin to scour Nazi offices and archives. In their hands lay overwhelming evidence of Nazi genocide by German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals industrialists, and others who played leading roles in organizing or perpetrating Nazi brutalities. Without pity or remorse, the SS murder squads [Einsatzgruppen] killed every Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on...It was tabulated that over a million persons were deliberately murdered by these special 'action groups.'" 

Mr. Ferencz's opening statement at the Einsatzgruppen Trial can be accessed here.

Otto Ohlendorf, SS Brigadefuhrer. Ohlendorf was the chief defendant at The Einsatzgruppen Trial. He showed no remorse for his actions and told Mr. Ferencz that American Jews would endure suffering because of prosecutor's work.
Photo: Creative Commons

I entered the lecture hall expecting to see a man who is ten feet tall. After all, Mr. Ferencz was only twenty-seven years old when he was named prosecutor in what eventually became known as the Einsatzgruppen Trial (it was also his first case). Instead, I saw a diminutive man mingling with the crowd, a man of exceptional good humor who struck those of us who met him as a humble advocate for the importance of educating future generations in the need to respect human rights.

At ninety-five years of age, Mr. Ferencz took the microphone not as a weary chronicler of past atrocities but instead offered a clarion call to those in the audience to look to "law" not "war" as the answer to the violence and indifference to human rights that plague the world today. He didn't shield his audience from the difficult reality he experienced seventy years ago as a GI and prosecutor. He searched newly liberated concentration camps for evidence to use in court against the perpetrators of horrific crimes while seeing the dead, and nearly dead, bodies of those who suffered the cruelest of fates. As a prosecutor, he looked directly into the eyes of the killers and confessed to his audience that as a former soldier he fantasized about killing them himself. After The Einsatzgruppen Trial (twenty-two defendants were charged, with thirteen sentenced to death), he dedicated his life to building the framework for the international courts that today work to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes in places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. 

I must admit that I am a jaded college professor. War? Genocide? Mass killing? All in a day's lecture. But I must also face that fact that I haven't seen anything remotely related to the crimes that have killed millions since the Armenian genocide. I've traveled, to be sure, but have not been a witness to history in the way that Mr. Ferencz has; his words forced me to confront my cynicism about the future of human rights on this planet. He stated plainly that during the trials he was a defender of "civilization" against genocide and crimes against humanity (and stands by this today). This is not a quaint philosophical point to bandy about at a cocktail party. His defense of law, reason, compromise, and human rights have deep roots in the Enlightenment. Why not defend this tradition? After all, what is left if we abandon these ideals? His final comments left me with a lot to think about: "You cannot kill an ideology with a gun," "Mass murderers did not have horns--many Nazi perpetrators possessed doctoral degrees and thought they were doing the right thing by their country." His solution is just the beginning. The killers are people, too. Get to them while they're young. Teach them the value of compromise, the love of peace and a hatred of war.

Mr. Ferencz fired up his audience with three final pieces of advice when battling on behalf of human rights: 
1.) Never Give Up! 
2.) Never Give Up! 
3.) Never Give Up! 






Tuesday, March 3, 2015

One Woman and Two Men in a Cramped Apartment: Sex and Marriage in 1920s Moscow


Lyudmila Semyonova as Liuda in "Bed and Sofa" (1927)
Creative Commons photo
"Marriage was oppressive to women first because, in the household just as in the workplace, women were viewed as inferior, subject to the rule of their husbands. In addition, monogamous marriage led spouses to feel ownership of one another, encouraging the belief that each had rights over the other."
From Caitlin Vest, "Alexandra Kollontai and the 'Woman Question': Women and Social Revolution, 1905-1917" https://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/citations/2011/11_Vest_History.pdf

Alexandra Kollantai's socialist feminism rang loudly within the ideological ferment of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In many ways, she influenced early Soviet attempts to improve the lot of women in the new society created out of the debris of the tsarist state. Russian women before the Revolution did not enjoy legal rights--their legal status was defined by their fathers, brothers and other male "guardians" if unmarried, and by their husbands after marriage. The idea that traditional, "bourgeois" marriage was now outdated and should be transformed was not only an idea held by Kollantai. Vladimir Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had tried to further Kollantai's vision of a new Soviet woman by supporting the creation of daycare centers to allow women to work and by supporting laws that would compel men to support pregnant wives and girlfriends through a type of child-support program. Women were also given the right to divorce. The tumultuous period following the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922 put the issue of women's rights on the social and cultural radar screen, with mixed success.

Looking back on the 1920s through the lens of the visual arts provides a fascinating look into the "new" society created by the Soviets. Recently I watched "Bed and Sofa," a classic silent film from 1927 that was directed by Abram Room. The symbolism of the film is rich, most of which cannot be dissected in a blog post. However, the overarching theme is how an ordinary woman fared during a time of change that promised so much to so many.

The plot of the film was considered scandalous by many at the time of its release:


"Russian writer/director Abram Room never again made anything as good--or as highly individual--as his 1927 silent film "Bed and Sofa." In this one-of-a-kind satire of the Moscow housing shortage, a married construction worker invites an old pal to stay with him. The friend not only accepts the worker's hospitality, but the favors of his wife as well. Impregnated, the wife tires of being a pawn for two rampaging male libidos and leaves both men, seeking a new life of her own." Hal Erickson, http://www.fandango.com/bedandsofa_52622/plotsummary

Kolya and Liuda are a young married couple living in a one-room apartment in Moscow. He has a career as a builder and works supervising the remodeling of the Bolshoi Ballet theater. His behavior is childish at times; he pulls pranks on Liuda and treats her more like a servant than a wife. Kolya's job allows him to venture out of the apartment to enjoy the bustling metropolis outside their cramped apartment. Abram Room's scenes of Moscow in summer are a delight. The viewer immediately senses the city becoming a modern metropolis (you see scaffolding on buildings and workers scurrying everywhere). Room clearly wants it known that Kolya and the men he works with are masters not only of their homes, but also of the public square. Unbeknownst to Kolya, the control over his life and his wife will be upended in the course of events.

Kolya's wife, Liuda, is overshadowed by him early in the film. Her confinement to the one-room apartment is mental, not physical. Kolya does not use physical coercion to get her to embrace subservience. Her world is defined by the walls of the apartment, symbolically decorated by the pictures that hang upon it. The magazines she reads give her a narrow perception of the world outside. She spends a lot of time gazing out of the window, imagining the world outside that Kolya takes for granted on a daily basis. What makes the film fascinating to watch is her eventual awakening as a woman who can exist outside the confines of her apartment. However, for most of the film, she spends her waking hours cooking, cleaning and doing other mundane chores.

Things rapidly change for the couple upon the arrival of Kolya's army buddy, Volodya, who arrives in Moscow after a train ride that represents a classic view of a country bumpkin looking to the city not only for a job but for the dynamism it provides. He lands a job and searches for lodging (the film makes a subtle critique of the severe housing shortage in Moscow a full decade after the Revolution). He bumps into Kolya on the street, who enthusiastically offers the apartment's sofa to his friend. Kolya's generosity is on full display here. The sofa is to be Volodya's "kingdom." Much to Liuda's annoyance, she is now responsible for cooking and cleaning for two men, and her loneliness deepens.

The love triangle is set into motion when Kolya is sent away on business. Volodya takes it upon himself to entertain the lonely Liuda by taking her on a day trip that includes a flight on a plane and a visit to the movies. This is one of two times in the film that Liuda is seen in public--it is also the happiest we see her in the film, as she finds herself outside of her self-imposed mental and physical prison. In the plane, she can see Moscow, but it cannot experience it close up like her husband and Volodya can. She does not realize this, because the excitement of the experience overwhelms her. That evening, Volodya seduces her and when Kolya returns from is trip, he bluntly tells the befuddled husband what transpired between him and Liuda.

The fascinating twist in this story has to do with the new domestic arrangement that the three set up in the apartment. Kolya is hurt, but because of the housing crunch has nowhere to go; Liuda offers him the sofa while Volodya moves to the bed. Over time, the strains in the friendship between the two men soften somewhat, as they spend evening after evening playing checkers while ignoring Liuda, who must endure her new "husband"--Volodya--who proves to be more demanding and dismissive of her than Kolya had been. Liuda's routine does not change.  Effectively shut out of this fraternity, she gazes out of the window at a world that seems to be forever out of her reach.

The director, Room, is satirizing the new shifts in the law that occurred in the 1920s as the Communist Party and Soviet state attempted to engineer changes in the structure of the family. Ideologically, there were moves to encourage more Soviet women to enter the workplace and to remake the "bourgeois" institution of marriage that had, in the eyes of Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin, Krupskaya and Kollantai, enslaved women and reinforced male patriarchy. Old attitudes die hard, and in Room's view, at least in this film, male domination of the home was ripe for satire.

Once the two men realize Liuda is pregnant, they decide that she is to have an abortion. She is left out of this conversation. Under Soviet law at the time, the mother could name the father, who could then be held responsible for the child support. Both men want nothing to do with the pregnancy. Liuda agrees to the abortion, but with misgivings. The abortion clinic scene, while not especially disturbing, does subtly highlight the plight of women who took this route, but the viewer can see Liuda's anxiety mounting. While waiting her turn in the clinic, she opens a window and sees a boy playing with a doll and two babies lying quietly in their bassinet. She leaves the clinic right before Kolya and Volodya arrive there to see her. The nurse asks who they are and they both respond at the same time, "husband."

Liuda arrives back at the apartment, packs her things, leaves a short note and quickly departs for the train station. The train ride out of Moscow is in direct contrast to the train ride Volodya took into Moscow at the start of the film. The difference here is that Volodya had a plan--to find a job and live in the city. The ending of the film appears to be a triumph for Liuda, who smiles as the train rushes forward toward an unknown destination. Is she finally free to shape her own destiny? Critics of the film stated upon its release that the ending was a condemnation of the new Soviet order: opportunities to participate in the life of the Communist Party, to make a difference in the workplace, and to find a sense of solace in the home still eluded most women.

How did the other sides of this love triangle cope with Liuda's absence? Kolya and Volodya decided to turn the apartment into their own bachelor pad. In this hilarious, absurd ending, fraternity trumps marriage and any relationship the men had with Liuda, monogamous or otherwise.

This film, reflective of the massive social and cultural changes that shook Moscow in the 1920s, provides an absorbing story of gender roles and politics in a time and place much unlike our own.

Find the English version of "Bed and Sofa" at Nexflix.com.




Monday, March 10, 2014

Crisis in Ukraine and the Rise of the Eurasian Union

Funeral procession for Mikhail Zhiznevsky, 25, a protester killed in Kiev in protests against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych (January 2014) (Photo courtesy of Mikola Vacilechko--Creative Commons)
Scenes of chaos in Kiev and across Ukraine dominated world news in January and February. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had passed decrees last fall extinguishing freedom of speech and assembly in an attempt to consolidate his pro-Russian dictatorship, was forced to flee the country after failing to sign a trade pact with the European Union. This action was seen by many in Kiev as the last straw. The ensuing crisis has led to a consideration of where the future of Ukraine lies--as a part of Europe or as part of the Russian sphere of influence.

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, wrote in a piece in The New York Review of Books that the future of the nation hinges on two possible paths Ukrainians may decide to follow if they are provided the freedom of choice. In Snyder's view, each path represents a legacy of the twentieth century that makes each path possible, with one potentially spelling trouble for Ukraine.

The first path leads toward Europe and the European Union. In the eyes of many, this means, more or less, the following: "...something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president" (Timothy Snyder, "Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine" in The New York Review of Books). Certainly, this potential path is not without its perils. The EU economies have struggled (with few exceptions) for the past five years to register even modest growth, and it is unlikely that European taxpayers will jump at the chance to bail out the Ukrainian economy after watching EU countries like Greece and Spain lurch toward some sort of permanent stagnation. However, Ukrainian entry into the EU, if it ever were to happen, wouldn't be the worst fate.

The real danger for Ukraine lies at the end of the second path, where Russia lies. Like the EU option, this path is also pockmarked with dangers that will take years to play themselves out. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been hard at work developing what Snyder calls a "rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union." The ramifications of such a "union" on Ukraine would be immense. Whereas the EU does purport to stand for the rule of law (and its member nations largely do), the Eurasian Union "...is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin's rule in Russia. Putin wants the Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian..." (Timothy Snyder, "Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine" in The New York Review of Books).  In short, any movement toward a true democratic order in Kiev must be destroyed as part of Ukraine's integration into this new commercial and political union.

Putin's recent decision to occupy Crimea is a clear attempt to disorient the new government in Kiev and to prevent the consolidation of a democratic order in Ukraine. In a recent radio interview with the BBC, Snyder insisted that the divisions within the country between those who favor closer ties with Russia and those who seek entry into the EU can be dealt with through the democratic process and that the idea of an independent Ukraine remains strong on both sides. The question now is whether Putin has the wherewithal to force the nation toward Russia, the Eurasian Union and authoritarianism.







Friday, August 9, 2013

Auschwitz Journal

 "...researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945." --Eric Lichtbrau, "The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking," New York Times (March 1, 2013).

It has been over two years since I returned from a week-long visit to Poland, a trip that included visits to Holocaust sites in Warsaw, Kielce and Auschwitz. When I was there, I blogged twice (see my entries from April 17th and 18th, 2011), driven by the need to process what I had seen during difficult tours of camps, museums and monuments to immense human suffering. I was also egged on by my students back home, whom I encouraged to follow my odyssey through my blog. I also posted a few snippets of video (with my commentary) I had shot at Auschwitz and elsewhere and, judging from their reception when I got back, were received with a mixture of curiosity and awe. I vowed to finish my "trilogy" of Polish blogs within a week of returning, to offer a final tribute to those who had died at or had survived Auschwitz (as if the world was waiting with bated breath for me to finish!).

Monday, April 18, 2011. This date marks my last blog from Poland. Since then I have been struggling to write about my visit to Auschwitz. My blogs from Warsaw and Kielce were written in the heat of the moment, as if I were a journalist working to meet a deadline set by a demanding editor. They reveal raw emotion in some places, as if I was trying to bear the weight of the terrible history I was contemplating. My difficulty may be rooted in the relief I felt in being back in the United States, safe in the sanctuary of my home with my wife and son, all too ready to jump back into a routine that kept me from facing what I had experienced.

This visit was different from my first encounter with Auschwitz during the summer of 1998. In the midst of a whirlwind trip across Europe, my wife and I bundled ourselves onto the Paris-Barcelona overnight train, then flitted across Provence and Northern Italy, through Salzburg, then Vienna, and into Prague. We saw cities built by monarchs and others that were beginning to emerge from years of Communist neglect. Our backpacks wore us down; trains sped up our travel. We drank the local wines, sampled the best beer and ate sausages with sides of fat (my wife sensibly waved the latter off, leaving me to suffer self-induced bouts of indigestion) and, finally, arrived in Krakow, Poland. The town is small, pretty, and, in the late-'90s, a difficult place for foreign tourists to navigate. We searched for hours to find a hotel in a place where the people still exhibited a Communist-era wariness of foreigners. After finding suitable accommodation, we made plans to visit Auschwitz. The day we spent there was emotional, not likely to be forgotten once we were back in the safe confines of our hotel room. Or, for that matter, ever.

When I returned in 2011, I was struck by what I had missed previously. I noticed how large the camp is--a large city of death with destroyed crematoria I was able to see up close; a pond where the ashes of hundreds of thousands of bodies were dumped; the fields where huge piles of bodies were burned. I was more sensitive this time around to the suffering of the children who died there. This was clearly due to the fact that I was now the father of a ten-year-old boy.

I think the fact that I had developed a better framework for understanding the Holocaust since 1998 made the 2011 experience intellectually richer. I have read more closely about this period because of my interest in the subject and because my teaching required it. I find it difficult to write about Auschwitz because I teach the history of the Holocaust, as paradoxical as that might sound. I can compartmentalize it when I am teaching because I can couch the problem of the Holocaust within bloodless theories (was it devised and executed by Hitler? Or, was it largely the work of his lieutenants? Is the Holocaust unique or can it be compared to other genocides?). I must also consider my students, many of whom are interpreting this period of history for the first time (they have read numerous survivor accounts, but not the theoretical work produced by Holocaust and genocide scholars). Teaching does not require hours in the archives, like research does. It is possible as a teacher to immerse oneself in a difficult topic one day and then move on to another the next. To me, one of the primary goals of the historian--to write about historical topics dispassionately--seems like a herculean task when considering the pain, suffering and death Auschwitz represents.

In the end, I am reminded of the sobering assessment of Primo Levi, the Italian Jew who wrote so jarringly about his experiences at Auschwitz. It's not a matter of whether ignoring the specter of the camps is possible or not. In Levi's view, we run the risk of losing much more than our delusions. He is calling on us to not slip into the mundane aspects of our lives that often take too much of our energy. He dares us to face inconvenient realities of the human condition:

 “It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one's mind: this is a temptation one must resist. In fact, the existence of the death squads had a meaning, a message: 'We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies, but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.”








video

Monday, April 18, 2011

Kielce Journal: The Holocaust and Anti-Semitism in Poland

Yesterday morning we left Warsaw and headed south toward the town of Kielce. The history of the town is mired in the destruction of Jewish lives and culture both during and after World War II. Before the war, the town had a vibrant Jewish community with an impressive synagogue. The population of this community stood at about 27,000. When the German occupation came, a ghetto was devised and the Jewish population was crammed into 5,000 houses. Deportations to Treblinka and other death camps followed. In a sickening example of German brutality, thirty pregnant women were shot in front of the synagogue. I have been teaching the history of the Holocaust for about eighteen years now, and I feel as though it is becoming harder to come to terms with what happened in these hellish years. In places like Kielce, Jewish life and culture were erased from the face of the earth forever; at the end of the war, only 400 Jews were left alive. The most difficult part of the day in Kielce revolved around discussions with the Polish tour guides and how they interpreted the destruction of Jewish life in the town both during and after the war. They were determined to leave us with the impression that most Poles shielded Jews from deportation by hiding them in their homes or through other means. This interpretation, however, flies in the face of historical research. It is true that there were dramatic examples of Polish families who risked their lives (the Germans shot entire families for this "crime") to help save Jewish lives. However, the evidence supports a darker reality: that a large number of Poles were involved in denouncing their Jewish neighbors and, in some cases, actively helping the Germans in their quest to solve the "Jewish Question." I don't mean to downplay Polish suffering during the war. It was unimaginable. But it doesn't address the part that anti-semitism played in the destruction of the Jewish community in Kielce and in other parts of Poland. Events that occurred after the war are also telling. In 1946 a pogrom took place in the town. Strange, given the fact that the Germany was defeated and the Soviet army had troops in Poland and much of Eastern Europe. We were told that the pogrom was the result of communist propaganda that reported that Catholic children were being kidnapped and murdered to satisfy Jewish rituals. Incensed at this, local Poles murdered Jews in full view of the police. The tour guides blamed the Soviets for the lies and that it was pure manipulation of the populace. Again, the evidence points in other directions. One interpretation points to the massacre of Jews being in revenge for bringing on the German occupation and the suffering of the Polish nation. Another interpretation focuses on the pogrom as an example of Poles identifying Jews as communists and therefore a threat to Polish independence from the Soviet Union. In both cases, anti-semitism was the common denominator. Anti-semitism was part of Polish (and European) culture for centuries. It cannot be whipped into existence through propaganda at a moment's notice. As for the synagogue, which stood as the pride of the Jewish community and was the site of terrible scenes of suffering during the Holocaust, it now stands as an archive, the symbols of Judaism stripped away. It's just another municipal building in a town with a cruel past.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Warsaw Journal: Poland Past and Present

Yesterday I arrived in Poland as part of a travel course organized by a close friend and colleague. The course includes 19 students who are studying World War II and the Holocaust. I am tagging along as co-leader of the trip. We are planning to stay in Poland until Thursday and will visit Warsaw and Cracow, with a trip to Auschwitz on Tuesday.


We arrived in Warsaw yesterday by way of Frankfort, Germany. Warsaw is a fascinating city--once rooted deeply in the past but lurching forward, away from its communist past. Everywhere you see signs that a new capitalist order has been embraced wholeheartedly, from the posters advertising the new Easter movie "Hop" to the brand new mall downtown that resembles Copley Plaza in Boston. In contrast, one cannot help but be reminded of Poland's turbulent past. Most of the city was destroyed by the Germans during World War II, leaving it a type of architectural patchwork. Neighborhoods may sport buildings from the prewar period, when Warsaw was called the "Paris of the East" because of its esteemed place in European culture. Then, just as quickly, our bus passes rows of communist-era apartment complexes that have been painted bright pastels, as if to say that the difficult years before 1989 could be swept away with a few buckets of paint.



However, despite the friendly exterior of most Poles I've met, it is difficult to ignore the weight of Polish history. Once part of the Russian empire, only to gain independence for a short time after World War I, the German invasion in September of 1939 wiped Poland off of the map and threatened to erase Polish nationhood forever. Examples are all around. Today we visited a museum dedicated to the suffering of Poland's Jews who were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto under unimaginable conditions. Thousands of men, women and children faced starvation, disease and violence before being transported to Treblinka for extermination. In 1943 an uprising in the ghetto by Jewish resistance groups was ruthlessly crushed by the Germans. For me, it put to rest the erroneous assumption that the Jews went passively to their deaths. The bravery of those doomed fighters will always stick firmly in my memory. Despite the intense suffering of the ghetto and its place in Polish, European and world history, all is left of the ghetto today is two wall fragments, both of which are located next to a quiet apartment block. This in a city where,in 1939, on the eve of the war, close to 30% of Warsaw's population was Jewish. Today, approximately 5,000 Jews remain in the entire country. The Germans may have killed two million Jews in Poland proper between 1941-1945. The more I talk about it with my fellow historians and try to make some sense of this enormous crime against a people and their culture, the more inadequate the explanations of "why" seem. I'm wondering how I will fare at Auschwitz, since it has been 13 years since I last visited. I know so much more about the Holocaust and have been teaching it for years now, but somehow I wonder if I'll ever be able to comprehend the worst mass murder in history.



I hope to continue blogging for the remainder of my stay in Poland. Stay tuned.