Holocaust Memorial Day - Hurstpierpoint College

Holocaust Memorial Day

Last Wednesday, Sixth Form history students attended the Holocaust Memorial Day at the University of Sussex, sponsored by the Association of Jewish Refugees and the university’s own Centre for German-Jewish Studies.

Introductions by various faculty figures were followed by a lecture from Professor Ruth Wodak, who teaches critical discourse studies. Professor Wodak argued that whereas language may be only be a ‘secondary factor in the process of action and suffering’, once the action is in the past it becomes the primary factor in which we may access memory, or as she quotes Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Wodak applied this principle to the memories of Holocaust survivors, many of whom either faced difficulty discussing their ordeals later in life with their families or felt unable to do so at all. She went on to explore the “sociolinguistic self-portrait” – that is, how an individual uses language to identify with and recount past experiences.

Particularly interesting was the varying extent to which different stages of the Holocaust were remembered by survivors. More notable events such as the Invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Uprising are recalled with a distinct wealth of specific detail, yet the day-to-day narratives of survival risk become generic for relative lack of detail. The impression given was that whilst every experience of the persecution was necessarily individual and personal, equally a great deal of the suffering was formulaic in some form – for example, the arrival of an Einsatzgruppeas vividly recollected by the second significant speaker, survivor Hannah Lewis.

To cut a life story short, so to speak, Hannah was born in a town called Włodawa – today in eastern Poland near the borders with Belarus and Ukraine. Through first her parents’ eyes and then her own she provided a first-hand narrative of a Polish Jewish community’s experience of the lead-up to the Holocaust and then the catastrophe itself, including the aforementioned visit by a German mobile killing unit that took her mother’s life, among many others. Hannah understood that to have been the day she reached adulthood, having only been a young girl before; her courage in sharing her memories with us was incomprehensible.

The theme of the event seems to have been less the Holocaust itself – it is, after all, hardly something we dispute today – but rather its lasting effect on survivors and the children of survivors. I have come to realise that gentile society has fixated so heavily on how the world remembers the catastrophe that the memory of the sufferers themselves is far less central to the legacy of the genocide than it rightly ought to be. Perhaps most powerful of all was Hannah’s account of her visit to Poland – and crucially the scene of her mother’s death – after the war so as to determine for herself that what she remembered had occurred. Had I thought of it at the time, I would have asked whether it was horror or relief that confronted her upon her realisation of, and indeed her coming to terms with, the past. Horrific as her memories are in themselves, I would imagine – for the rest of us cannot do anything else – that she felt relief; relief that the formative tragedy of her life was not, and could not be a lie.

By Philip H, Sixth Form student