Anne Gardom visits a disturbing exhibition at the Imperial War Museum
THE HOLOCAUST EXHIBITION – why another exhibition one might ask, when the subject has received so much attention already? There have been books, films, documentaries, of widely varying quality, which have given us many different angles and viewpoints. Some have been informative, some full of denial, some inspiring, some pathetic, many exceedingly painful, and we could surely be forgiven for asking why the Imperial War Museum thought there was room for anything more.
They have, however, assembled an exhibition, a very large one, which is not just about the horrors of the labour and extermination camps. It does something more – it informs. It gives clear and well laid out explanations of the political and economic conditions which encouraged the concept of the Herrenvolk, the master race, born to rule, to dominate, to succeed over all the odds and at all costs.
The growth of this idea is followed in some detail, emphasising Germany’s conviction that she had really won World War I, but had been stabbed in the back by the “November criminals”, those who had profited from the war and were continuing to do so, among others, prominent Jews
The huge war debts, the sense of humiliation, the runaway inflation of 1923, all these paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. The concept of a master race, destined to dominate and subjugate inferior races is, of course, not a new one. It is as old as history, and many of our forebears would have been quite comfortable with it. But Nazi Germany was the first country to employ all the administrative and technical skills of a sophisticated Western country to eliminate, in their thousands, those seen as a threat to the realization of that concept.
There is an interesting short film on the history of anti-Semitism, going back to the middle ages, and an account of how, with the widespread relaxation of the restrictions and inhibitions, Jews all over the world were coming out of the ancient ghettos and taking their place in the arts, in commerce, in the armed forces, and in academic and public life. They were living and working side by side with their non-Jewish compatriots and there are many photographs of Jewish family groups – weddings, holidays, celebrations, testifying to the sense of increasing security and prosperity which was shortly to be torn apart for ever.
Jews were not the only people seen as a threat to the master race, but gradually the ancient fear of the Jews began to be revived, fuelled by increasingly virulent propaganda. Hitler said the Jews “were a disease that had to be exterminated”, and the Jewish people were increasingly portrayed as a dangerous, powerful, evil, ugly, inferior race.
The publicity on display is chilling. German posters have always had a tradition of powerful and direct design, and those on display carry a potent message of hatred and fear. They may be in showcases now, rather than plastered on walls and doors, but the message is as clear for us now as ever it was. Films describing the threat posed to the German way of life by the increasing number of Jews, delinquents and handicapped, are shown, along with a film where a fatherly German doctor explains to a pretty girl student that it is a natural law that the weak should perish and the strong survive.
Children’s books were published, and are shown being read by charming blonde children, with pictures of Jews as hideous, gross and stupid. One called “The Poisonous Mushroom” shows a caricature of a purple toadstool with Jewish features, beautifully produced and illustrated.
The increasing pressures brought to bear on the Jews are clearly described. Repressive legislation, including tests for “racial purity”, increasingly eroded their rights and freedoms, they had to wear the Star of David on their clothing for easy identification. There were a succession of orchestrated anti-Jewish demonstrations, of which there are some very frightening and dramatic photographs. There was the burning in 1933 of Jewish and other books considered “disruptive”, when SA troops assisted by students made huge public bonfires of private and public libraries (Heinrich Heine – 1791-1856 – had said “Where one burns books one will in the end burn people”).
The Olympic Games held in Berlin in 1936 were boycotted by many Jewish athletes, and were a largely successful effort by the Germans to show a united Aryan country at work. Then came Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) in November 1938, when a wave of violence broke out against Jews throughout Germany. Storm-troopers broke into Jewish homes, smashed up Jewish shops and businesses, and destroyed nearly half the synagogues in the country. 20,000 men were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps, and the Jews were forced to pay a billion Reichsmarks for the damage which had been caused by the Nazis.
The time before Hitler marched into Poland and war was declared is well documented – the increasing violence to Jews in Austria, with photographs of elderly Jewish men and women being forced to scrub the pavements, the scheme by which Jewish children were given asylum in this country – these are incidents which have often touched our own lives. I remember my Jewish German teacher in Vienna describing the scrubbing of the streets with tears in her eyes, and we have a friend who came over here with the Kindertransport. He was one of the lucky ones, and saw his parents again after the war; most of them did not.
We need to be reminded of these things, and in talking to younger people, I realise that many are hearing of them for the first time.
Set up at intervals during the exhibition are screens, and on these various people who survived the camps, tell us of their experiences. It must be an almost impossible thing to do, and one admires their courage and honesty in trying to talk about things that are simply beyond words. They are, of course, mostly people in their seventies or older, and their descriptions and stories are among the most moving parts of the exhibition. They tell of the bewilderment of a small boy who suddenly finds his best friend is ordered to knock him over in front of all his classmates; of a little girl given a lump of sugar when squashed into a transport truck on an interminable journey to an unknown destination; of a child, frightened and confused, being told by his grandfather “We are marked for murder, all of us”.
These brave people accompany us through the experiences of the arrests, the dreadful journeys, the camps, the eventual bitter freedom, and the struggle to rebuild their lives again. Their testimonies are, in the literal sense of the word, extraordinary. The expressing and therefore the sharing of the pain needs so much courage and awareness that it seems to have a beauty all its own.
Listening to these people, their voices often blurred with emotion, the poems of the First World War poets come to mind. There unspeakable experiences and horrors could somehow be spoken of and, with courage and honesty and the gift of language, be turned into something moving and beautiful. These men and women in describing their experiences and sharing the depths of their sadness and pain also show us the same beauty and heroism.
The exhibition continues with maps of the prison camps in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, and they are startling. There are hundreds of camps – transit camps, labour camps, camps where people were just left to perish, extermination camps – all of them part of an efficiently integrated system for ridding the master race of those elements that stood in its way. These were by no means only Jews, though they were seen as the main target, but also included homosexuals, political dissidents, physically disabled, mentally handicapped, gypsies, spies, Soviet and other prisoners, the list goes on and on, and all these were fed into the terrifyingly efficient and complex system for eliminating them – how easy to use that word – for murdering them.
There is a whole room, empty except for wall charts, showing the chain of command in Nazi dominated Europe, by which the system was made to work in different countries. All the occupied countries were forced, “encouraged”, co-opted, into working with the occupying powers. It is extraordinary to stand in this bright bare space, and see laid on so clearly the organisations which had as their aim the death of thousands of men, women and children.
In the first stages of the persecution, the Jews were herded into ghettos, the largest of which was the Warsaw ghetto. Conditions of hardship and starvation are painfully obvious in the black and white photographs of gaunt, frail and ill-clad people, and children, all eyes and little bony birdlike limbs. The corpses of those who have died can be seen lying in the streets.
After the Warsaw rising the ghetto was systematically burnt to the ground, and all the Jews either burnt to death, killed, or transported to camps elsewhere. There is photograph of a dozen or so of the survivors, including a child, being marched out between German soldiers with guns, while the dark sky behind them is filled with clouds of thick smoke from their burning homes.
The exhibition takes us on into the camps themselves, and you find yourself walking into the next part through a model of a transport truck – as a walk-through it is interesting enough, but if you imagine it filled with a hundred or more people for several days, a water-butt in the middle and a couple of buckets to do duty as lavatories, it becomes something very different.
From the truck you walk into a room with a large model of Auschwitz. It looks enormous, but when you check the map what you are seeing is only part of the camp, the part where the transport trucks arrived, and where the prisoners were disembarked conveniently near the gas chambers. The camp is very much larger than this. Visiting Auschwitz, as we did about five years ago, the sheer size of it remains an abiding memory. Many of the wooden dormitory huts were destroyed by the Germans towards the end of the war when they realised defeat was inevitable, in an attempt to conceal their crimes. Wooden huts burn easily, but the brick chimneys remained, row after row of them in neat avenues, like rows of accusing fingers. The lines of identity photographs, the tins of Zyklon B, the piles of shoes and tragic little personal effects, all tell their own story. The chilling efficiency of the documentation and the rows of photographs give an air of organisation and order that makes the contrast with what was actually happening almost impossible to grasp – how does the mind work that can quantify and organise mass murder as if it were a well-run building site or shipyard?
As the Allies advanced through Germany and Austria towards the end of the war, the Germans started to move their prisoners by forced marches further away from the possibility of discovery and rescue. They destroyed as much of the evidence as they could, and hundreds of people were marched in appalling conditions to camps further into German-held territory. There is a photograph, apparently taken from a first floor window of a house, showing heavily draped figures shambling along a street with the clipped hedges of a neat suburban villa in the background. Many died of cold and exposure, starvation and brutality on these tragic marches from one camp to another.
At the end there is time and space for reflection, and the remarkable people whose filmed testimonies have accompanied us through the exhibition talk about the present, and how it will always be affected by the past. They describe their present lives, married and with families for the most part, and how they live with their memories. Perhaps it is best summed up by the woman who said that when you throw a stone into a pool it makes rings, gradually the rings get smaller, and finally they disappear altogether and the pool is quite smooth, but the stone is lying at the bottom. My life is like that, she said. It seems normal and peaceful, but the stone is still lying in my heart.
There is much more that could be said about the exhibition. One comes out with a sense of overwhelming loss, of guilt, of involvement. There are questions to be asked still, should or could more have been done to save the Jews when the situation was apparently known to the Allies? Could it ever happen again? How should we make sure that it never does?
This is, I think, an indication of the high quality of this exhibition. A great deal of information is made clear and accessible, tragic situations described and explained, and very difficult material is handled with care and respect – it should be making us ask not only questions such as these but many others beside.
Anne Gardom lives and works in South London