Why another book on the concentration camps? If the so-called revisionists or defilers of history have not been shamed and silenced by the previous out pouring of books detailing the moral depravity and predatory inhumanity that were the categorical imperatives of the Nazi concentration camps, why this book? What can the anguished memories of survivors do to bring about justice, to redeem the dead, when public memory fails? When the moral social contract and the ability to empathize have become progressively weaker over the years. When the call for justice and the thirst for revenge are frequently confused and assailed? Above all, when posthumous justice is at best a pinprick, fleeting as we turn the page and put down the book? The answer, as one might expect, is a complex one, and in fairness, somewhat elusive.
Glibly, we can say, as John Stuart Mill did, that on great subjects there is always something to be said. In this case, we can say something is left to be rediscovered and remembered as part of our human heritage. This memoir contributes by making sure that the Nazis, despite their boasts and determination ,will not "dictate the history of the Lagers" and allow their heinous crimes to be lost to memory. The narrative, moreover, enables historians to fill in some of the gaps about who actually participated in the blowing up of some of the crematoriums at Auschwitz, how the plan was hatched, how the gun powder was obtained, how the perpetrators were caught, and, of course, what happened to them. It also provides documentary evidence of the intentionally designed dehumanization process developed and practiced by the Nazis.
The narrative fully documents how the dehumanization process operated, how camp inmates were violated and pummeled into submission until many lost their human dignity, their sense of knowing right from wrong, and ultimately, the will to live.
These diaries by necessity are Anna's own story. It is a story that she herself has lived and witnessed, written from the vantage point of youth abruptly ended. She begins by telling of her childhood, describing her parents, including their warts, her siblings and their rivalry, and the Jewish bourgeois world of Warsaw. This provides a context to help us understand her journey to the Nazi charnel house: how the world that she knew and felt secure in was suddenly wrenched from her. We also see the values that shaped her, how they were challenged in extremis, by events she did not fully comprehend and which she was ill-prepared to grapple with. Her privileged life and superior education were no defense against the deep darkness that awaited her and European Jewry, Gypsies, Slavs and those committed to the socialist or liberal-democratic tradition. Here we are able to celebrate and not scoff and pity the camp's inmates. Here we see the bonds that in some sense are dearer than life, and which to this day, have not diminished or disappeared.
The diaries are more than a record of events, they are a confession. They are Anna's way of seeking absolution for surviving. But the absolution she seeks cannot be found in the confessional box or given by a Priest or Rabbi. It is a desperate attempt to be free from an inexpressible grief that comes from the loss of a beloved sister, the sense of isolation and the gnawing guilt for having survive. Primo Levi captured this when he elegiacally wrote about his "shame of not being dead", of "what he had seen", "what others had done." With heartrending honesty he writes, "We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. We are an anonymous minority: we are those who by their prevarications, or their attributes or their good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have returned to tell about it, or they returned mute."
But Levi, despite his eloquence, is wrong. Like it or not, he is a witness; he has seen the Gorgon's head, and as his many books testify, he refused to be mute. Anna, too, refuses to be mute, to let the ghosts of the past disappear. If there is absolution, even temporary absolution, it can only be gotten by Anna telling her story, reliving and expressing her torment, and remembering the deeds of her sister and friends. And as readers, we can help by our understanding, empathy, and acceptance that those who died as well as those who survived did not do so in vain. It is not that they were heroes, but their refusal to vanish and have their ashes scattered by the winds, Their scheme may have been hopeless, driven by desperation and illusion, but their willingness to resist and not to accept the doom planned for them passively is, in Herman Broch's words a "light that flares out over the deepest darkness, and only over the deepest darkness."
On another, even more intimate level, Anna's narrative has three interconnected threads that make her story more than an accusation of the perfidy of the Nazis and a retelling of the fate of Jews in Auschwitz who, for some, were nothing more than another casualty of a World War that ultimately killed between fifty and sixty million people. The first thread, as we have suggested elsewhere, is that she has written her diaries because of the deep love she has for her sister, hung by the SS for her part in the "gun powder" plot to destroy the crematoriums. In a world where love has become a commodity, surrounded by hype and hucksterism, it is easy to lose sight of its power to heal and to inspire. The sisters' love for each other protected them and gave them the will to go on. The second thread is redemption. Anna was responsible for her sister becoming involved in the plot, and her death can only have meaning if we, the reader, discover who she was, what she did, and the price she paid for her actions. To die for no purpose and vanish in obscurity Anna cannot accept and live with. While her sister has perished, Anna's memory of her has not, and in this way Anna has not only redeemed her sister but herself as well. Lastly, she is driven by the need for justice. But Anna's implicit demand for justice is not simply for her sister, it is for all the camp inmates that were devoured by flames, destroyed by malnutrition and disease. Justice requires that they be treated more than a statistic.
Finally, the publication of Anna's diaries represent a painful search for closure, the need to end her long nightmare that began fifty years ago. Her diaries are not simply a serious documentation of life in Auschwitz, or an exploration of the human heart, or a struggle to deal with large moral questions, they are attempt to free herself from the ghosts of murdered inmates, especially her sister and "the experience of radical evil."
When Jews die, it is customary for family members and friends to put soil on the casket. The soil symbolizes the finality of life and the return to the soil. It is designed to give closure to the bereaved, to provide spiritual peace and permit the living to go on with their lives. As we know, there is no grave to toss soil on. But Anna's diaries symbolically are the tossing of the soil and a closing of the grave.
It is therefore fitting that we end with the Kaddish, the Jewish Prayer for the Dead.
Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He hath created according to His will.
May He establish His Kingdom during your life and during your days and during the life of all the House of Israel, even speedily and at a near time, and say ye, Amen.
Let His great name be blessed for ever and to all eternity.
Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One.
Blessed be He though He be high above all the blessing and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world, and say ye, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel, and say ye, Amen.
He who maketh peace in His high places may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and say ye, Amen.
May you find the peace that you seek and deserve, Anna.
From the Afterword to Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman ©2001
About Anna Heilman
About Never Far Away: The Auschwitz Chronicles of Anna Heilman
Anna Heilman Speech At National Library of Canada
Never Far Away: Afterword by Joel Prager
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