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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: A question neither I – nor anyone – could answer

It was impossible not to think you were never more than the thickness of one person’s skin away from torment

I read that a public service television channel in Turkey has marked Holocaust Day by showing Claude Lanzmann's great documentary Shoah. Apparently this is the first time Lanzmann's film, or indeed anything like it, has been shown on a public station in a Muslim country. Muslim audiences are more accustomed to programmes – such as dramatisations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – which show Jews as the initiators of evil rather than its victims.

Not everyone is pleased about this. An item on the website of Press TV, Iran's television network, otherwise known as the Voice of George Galloway, has, as you would expect, expressed concerns about showing a documentary that "mainly consists of interviews with those who claim to be Holocaust survivors, exploring the alleged killing of European Jews in Nazi death camps during the World War II".

We have said it before in this column, and we will say it again, that if the Holocaust was one of humanity's greatest ever crimes against itself, the denial or downplaying or demeaning of it – for recourse to words like "alleged" or "claim" is nothing short of denial – only compounds the wickedness.

I wonder, anyway, how Turkish television audiences will react to the final, near unbearable testimony of Itzhak Zuckerman, second-in-command of the Jewish Fighting Organisation in the Warsaw ghetto. "I began drinking after the war," Zuckerman says. "It was very difficult... you asked for my impression. If you could lick my heart, it would poison you." And I hope they will see for themselves how far from that Holocaust opportunism of which Jews continue to be accused such a terrible confession is.

How you go on remembering, as it is your duty to do, without allowing your insides to turn toxic, has always seemed to me the great dilemma for Jews, whether they experienced the camps, or never got to within a thousand miles of them. When does memory become too great a burden for those who bear it, or has it to be borne no matter what?

The question was brought home forcibly to me, again, when I visited the Holocaust Centre in north London last week. I was there to give a talk, but of course it should have been the survivors who talked and I who listened. After weeks of looking at the faces of bankers on television, faces on which it seemed no light of sympathetic comprehension could dawn, or trace of moral seriousness settle, I was grateful to be in a room of people whose expressions were capable of gravity.

Yes, some are born grave and some have gravity thrust upon them, and I was determined not to sentimentalise, or imagine nobility of countenance impressed by suffering. And those I talked to were assuredly not disposed to sentimentalise themselves. But it is impossible, in such company, not to think you are never more than the thickness of one person's skin away from torment.

And sure enough, the Ancient Mariner moment I had half anticipated came not after we had taken tea and exchanged pleasantries, but immediately. I was introduced to a small, intense and quietly spoken man, born Abram Warszaw in Poland in 1927, but now calling himself Alec Ward in deference to the English tongue. He grasped my hand and said without any preliminaries, "I have a question for you."

I dreaded what he was going to ask. The Holocaust threw up existential and theological questions that baffle the intelligence of the greatest men. The post-Holocaust world throws up many of its own. How could people do that, and now how dare people doubt they did. I had no answer to either. But Mr Ward's question turned out to be simpler and more haunting.

"In the mornings," he said, "in Buchenwald, when the guards lined us up to count us, to see how many had survived the night, and we stood there in the cold in just our shirts and bare feet, an orchestra played, a Jewish orchestra playing classical music. It had no effect on me. I was too numb to feel anything. Now, before I am able to sleep, I have to listen to classical music. No, it doesn't bring back memories of the music the orchestra played then. I listen to classical music now because it helps me to forget. They are not connected. But this is my question – why did the Germans order that music to be played?"

I shook my head. Because they loved music so much they didn't want an hour to pass, even in Buchenwald, in which they didn't hear any? Because they especially liked the way Jews made music and knew there would soon be no Jews left to make it? Because they wanted further to refine their cruelty: "You think of yourselves as cultivated, well look at you now!" Who knows? Who knows anything?

Before I left, I told Alec Ward I was still pondering his question and would probably go on pondering it for the rest of my life. He stood very still – almost vibrating with stillness, I thought – leaning on his stick, unsmiling, and nodded.