“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” So goes Nazi-exiled German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum.
Aversion of this debate is ongoing. What is the appropriate response to Auschwitz? Can there even be an appropriate response? The debate this time is how Jewish participants should behave on the annual March of the Living.
As 11,000 participants from across the world gathered to memorialise the Shoah – and specifically the death marches concentration camp prisoners were forced into – some worried that, this year, too much of a carnival atmosphere prevailed.
Jewish News’ Jack Mendel wrote last week: “While March of the Living is a celebration of life, having a party in a place of unimaginable death steps over the line. It makes you lose perspective of where you are and why you’re there. It banishes the sincerity required to process what took place.”
Yet, as Jack acknowledges, some of this atmosphere was ideological and intentional. Jewish youth movements have a long tradition of reclaiming places of suffering, by bringing life back to those places, through song, prayer, and ritual.
March participant and LJY-Netzer movement worker Hannah Stephenson argues singing Oseh Shalom as part of an international gathering of Jews at Auschwitz is a radical act of reclamation and pride. She said: “We remember those who lost their lives and do what they couldn’t do, in their honour and memory.”
The question of how to memorialise the Shoah is a profound one. How do we remember and learn from collective suffering so great in a way that ennobles rather than embitters?
I often think of Nietzsche’s quote: “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” That is, sometimes reclamation in the face of an abyss needs to be more than silent gazing to be overcome.
υ Leah Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student chaplain