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A trauma that must be shared by us all

For Holocaust survivors the burden of pain has been unspeakable. Only n ow can we hear their stories `Shoah's focus on the detail of remembering and forgetting is its great triumph '
Today is not Remembrance Day. Britain's official calendar does not commemorate the Holocaust. The liberation of the Nazi death camps did not liberate a language of mourning to match the lament for "Our Glorious Dead". There is no patriotic anthem and no national redemption to mark the moment when the extermination of the Jews ended, because no state committed itself to their survival.

Unbidden and unwelcome, today's arbitrary anniversary has placed the Holocaust in our collective consciousness. Still, there is no communal gesture of commitment to one of the defining moments in history, to its revelation of mass death that was both willed and yet denied, witnessed and yet not noticed, survived but unspeakable. The commemoration is, therefore, private and personal.

But that is not to say it is either secret or sacred. Awe once rendered the Holocaust as something that could be remembered but n ot represented, as something literally unspeakable. Awe gave the world its alibi when it lost its voice. Survivors, living in a world with so little to say, were sanctified and surrounded by silence. They were not welcomed. These people who were almost not there, who had defied death, were not treasured because they brought pain and the plague of knowledge. Their histories ex posed us to the "hazards of listening".

Uniquely, the Holocaust presented trauma as a crisis of history. The Yale scholars Shoshona Felman and Dori Laub, in their 1992 book Testimony, describe this as a "crisis of witnessing". The story could scarcely be told: extermination was a real event "eliminating its own witness".

The survivors' stories revealed the limits of living experience. Eloquent in his modesty, the Italian survivor Primo Levi mapped the impasse between the living and the dead, in The Drowned and the Saved. It was shortly after he finished this book that hetook his own life. "We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses," he wrote. The witnesses were dead, they were "the human ashes coming from the crematoria" that became ballast, landfill, insulation, fertiliser or gravel. Underfoot, trample d on, teethand bones resting in dust, they bequeathed an unfinished story to the "salvati", those who were saved. "We speak in their stead, by proxy."

These limits have been enlisted to mock and minimise the idea of the Holocaust. Revisionist historians, in reinterpreting the evidence of the Holocaust - the death camps and their inmates - illuminate the instability of evidence itself. Evidence, they show us, is not material, it is not secured by science, it is always in the eye of the beholder. Like experience, evidence is always the work of interpretation. The revisionist Robert Faurisson is reported as saying: "I have tried in vain to find a singleformer deportee capable of proving to me that he had really seen, with his own eyes, a gas chamber." But seeing was being: to be in it was to die.

For the world, merely millions of deaths was never, in itself, enough. We have depended upon the broken relics of the camps, the entombed archives, and finally the participation of the perpetrators themselves, for the drama of discovery. It is the archives of the Nazis, the railway managers, the engineers, architects and the administrators of the camps which crucially corroborates the testimony of their victims.

The prelude to the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps has changed the terms of the world's conversation with itself about the meaning of the Holocaust. The debate has been amplified and expanded by the newly opened Nazi archives in Moscow. And history has also been returned to the victims: it is the survivors' stories which are the material of commemoration now. But Felman and Laub show that the Age of Testimony has been more than the struggle to defend memories; it has also been a struggleto survive the trauma of memory itself.

An image inhabits my own memory. My relatives are gentiles. Their war, as soldiers, resisters and citizens of occupied countries, some of them transported to German labour camps, bled across their own biographies and bequeathed to their children traces of pain that have no expression in the triumphalism of the victors. But for both gentiles and Jews, the Holocaust became the epitaph for an entire generation's experience. One Saturday morning my father, who had been a young soldier, assembled his children, with grave ceremony, to show us a book. It was the biggest book I had ever seen. And he told us he was showing us this so that it would not be forgotten. It was a book of war photographs, sprawling corpses in still-lives. The Holo caust was, for me, defined by the iconography of death.

It is, however, increasingly signified by the difficulty of survival. Popular culture, literature and cinema, more than anything, have illuminated both the impossibility and the necessity of speaking. And they have created a new generation of "participants" - the audiences who have committed themselves to the "hazards of listening".

Schindler's List and the epic Shoah are watersheds in this process of participation. The complaint that Stephen Spielberg's film Schindler's List could never really represent the reality of the Holocaust was answered by the film's attempt to participate in history. Of course it could not represent the reality. What it could do, however, was give the spectator permission to imagine.

But the exemplary gift to remembrance is Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. The action is storytelling. And by giving that back to victims, perpetrators and by-standers, Shoah gives to the spectator the trauma of testimony. We see what the participants often did not see: their determination to not know. We see in the living victims how survival itself is a crisis.

The film's focus on the detail of remembering and forgetting is its great triumph. The spectators are obliged both to submit to the storytellers, for they are the narrative's only resource, and yet also to bring their empathy to the event and to the drama of speaking. The perpetrators' lacunae, the by-standers' refusal to imagine, the victims' sorrows, speech and silence, are all evidence of trauma.

The Holocaust is the template for abuse and oppression. Its victims had to manage the perpetrators' injunction: thou shall not be known, thou shalt not be believed. It also exemplifies the trauma as a process of postponing feeling, of pain deferred.

This recurring nightmare is the gift of the salvati to society. Through it, the event of the Holocaust is not longer an unknowable exception, but a test of our commitment to the victims of history.