From Austerlitz To Auschwitz

I’ve only recently read Elie Wiesel‘s Night (last week, in fact), and as is my habit, I skipped the preface (by Robert McAfee Brown) and the foreword (by François Mauriac) and went straight to the text. Once I was done, I returned to these preliminary sections. In the foreword, I read Mauriac describe his encounter with a young Wiesel, and how it led him to memories of the Occupation (of France):

I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had seen during those somber years had left so deep a mark upon me as those trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. Yet I did not even see them myself! My wife described them to me, her voice still filled with horror.

I read these lines with some puzzlement. Austerlitz?  I knew of only two Austerlitzes: the first, the scene of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph; the second, W.G. Sebald‘s novel (which I have not read yet.) Didn’t Mauriac mean ‘Auschwitz’ instead? Had his wife–whom I knew nothing about–been to Auschwitz, survived, and brought back these visions of deported Jewish children? If Mauriac did mean ‘Auschwitz’ then surely this was the most bizarre typo I had seen in a very long time. For it would have run together a place which has now passed into our collective memory as a zone of unimaginable atrocity, and a venue of military conflict, whose name has come to represent the zenith of one of the most remarkable lives of all time. Had Mauriac, somehow, unthinkingly, as he sat down at his typewriter, run together the typographic similarity of these two words in his mind, and pressed the wrong keys? But even if that was the case, how had such a howler made it through the editing gauntlet?

As might be expected, I went online to assuage my confusion. There I found that Mauriac had not made a mistake. He was indeed speaking of ‘Austerlitz station.’ To be precise, he was referring to Gare d’Austerlitz “one of the six large terminus railway stations in Paris…situated on the left bank of the Seine in the southeastern part of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.” It was built in 1840, the year Napoleon’s remains were returned from Helena to be buried at Hôtel des Invalides. During the Second World War,  the Vichy Regime set up internment camps to hold Jews being deported to concentration and death camps. Among them was Drancy internment camp, which included five subcamps; three of these were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps. When these Jews were finally sent to their final destinations, they departed from one of Paris’ stations. One of them, of course, was Austerlitz station, where Mauriac’s wife would have seen the sights she reported to her husband. Perhaps some of the children she saw went to Auschwitz too. (This photograph shows deportees at Austerlitz station in 1941.)

So no typo, but even then, what terrible irony. A symbol of French military ingenuity and brilliance and valor, where Napoleon took on the Old Empires and beat them to establish a new European order, sullied by these associations with the greatest European atrocity of all.

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’: The Holocaust Brought To The Present

One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.

Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.

The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.

Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.

Birthdays, Coincidences, and Divination

I was born on the 156th anniversary of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s expulsion–on grounds of atheism–from Oxford. (Thomas Jefferson Hogg, his collaborator on The Necessity of Atheismwas expelled with him; the two were accused of ‘contumacy in refusing certain answers put to them’ by the master and fellows of University College.) My birthday is also, remarkably enough: the 189th anniversary of Beethoven‘s first public concert; the 140th anniversary of his death;  the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Commune (though there seems to be some disagreement about the exact date); and the 43rd anniversary of the premiere of George Bernard Shaw‘s ‘Saint Joan‘ in London. Among other things.

A very distinguished list, I’m sure you will agree. Unfortunately, closer examination of the ‘among other things’ reveals my birthday to also be: the 41st anniversary of the first lip-reading tournament in the US and the 30th anniversary of the day spinach growers in Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of Popeye. The chuckles that these events might provoke are quickly silenced by noting that my birthday is the 25th anniversary of the arrival of seven hundred Jews from Lvov in Poland at the Belzec concentration camp, and the departure of the first ‘Eichmann transport’ to Auschwitz.

My birth date, through history, appears to have played host to, in equal measure, the sublime, the sordid, the ridiculous, and the horrifying. There seems to a similar pattern in my birth anniversaries: my 4th birthday was marked by the Bangladeshi declaration of independence (which kicked off a genocidal crackdown by the West Pakistani Army on the Bengali populace) and the ascendance of the ‘Benny Hill Show‘ to the top rank in television ratings in the United Kingdom; my 12th by the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat; and so on. You get the picture: there really isn’t one. My birth date and my birthday is like all the other days of the year, undistinguished and memorable in its own particular way.

An inquiry into, and examination of, the coincidental occurrence of events in world history on the date of one’s birth is an old fascination of ours; it remains a species of divination, an inspection of cosmic tea-leaves, a close reading of the universe’s entrails that tempts and afflicts many of us, sometimes, I suspect, even the hard-headed ones. Could something, possibly, just possibly, connect us to this strange list of events? Could there perhaps be a historical pattern that I am part of? Am I the bodily manifestation of some global world-historical-process? It can engender grandiose idiocy too: Have I inherited some of the intellectual talents of Shelley, Beethoven, Shaw? These are lovely, deluded, tempting thoughts, strategies to grant of possible meaning to a life that otherwise may appear destined for insignificance. The relationship with astrology is, of course, unmistakable; that is precisely what that popular pseudo-science set out to do, to convince us that there was some deeper meaning to the date of our birth, over and above the circumstances leading to the coupling of our parents.

Still, some virtue may be found in such pursuits: if nothing else, it may provoke further reading on a matter that catches our eye, and also remind us that the calendar stretches out long into the past before us, and will continue to do so into the future, long after we are capable of noting the coincidence of our birth anniversaries with events of historical interest.