Sunday, February 07, 2010

A dark poem

I wrote this on Christmas morning (some measure, perhaps, of how depressed I was at the time). I had been shocked, outraged to read a few days earlier of the theft of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign from above the gate of the Auschwitz death camp. I was relieved to learn shortly afterwards that it had been recovered, the ludicrously inept thieves (and the vile neo-Nazi who instigated their crime) caught.

The news prompted these reflections on the significance of the site. I gather it's not a particularly well-run or well-preserved memorial, and it is inevitably doomed to crumble back into the earth - probably sooner rather than later. And I worry about the kind of people who visit it; I fear it probably attracts a large proportion of prurient ghouls or Nazi sympathisers. I don't think I could bear to go there myself; its emotional impact is too overwhelming (I broke down in tears at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC a few years ago). But I would like to see it preserved for as long as possible. I think it stands for something far beyond the specific evil of the Third Reich. It should continue to exist as long as humankind exists: a reminder of our most terrible achievement, a reminder of the worst of which we are capable.


What they killed here
Was humanity –
Their victims’ and their own;
The doers and the done-to,
Manufacturers and product marred alike
In this monstrous factory.

What it showed us
Was the darkness in all our hearts:
The capacity, the urge to hate and hurt;
And the tricks of losing feeling, sight,
Conscience, dignity, respect,
The checks that stifle the dark impulse,
The checks that, once removed,
Allow the hate to become habit, process,
The aberration to become the norm,
Wrong to become right.

What they killed here too
Was the last fond hope of God:
Where this can happen
There is no salvation,
No higher benevolence;
Alone we made this hell,
Alone they suffered it.

They re-made the world here:
Industrializing evil revealed
The impersonalization of modernity;
More than the Bomb
Or the Moonshot or the Electric Light
This place defined
The New Era for Mankind.

Let it stand forever
As a reminder
Of the fragility of human morals,
Of how easily civilization crumbles,
How easily decency is lost,
How easily cruelty conquers,
As a reminder
Of the worst of which we are capable,
Of the darkness in all our hearts.

And let the sign stand too -
Yes, that vile joke above the heads of the condemned,
The taunting lie of redemption –
Let it stand to injoin us always
To work to make ourselves free
Of this darkness within,
To make the world free of it.
Although we know
We never can be free of it,
Let us work always toward that end.

Therefore, let it stand.
Let it be the last thing remaining of us.
When the Alhambra and the Pyramids are long gone,
Let it stand.


stuart said...

I spent the day at Buchenwald a few years ago while visiting a friend in Germany.

A truly emotionally draining experience.

Froog said...

I'm really not sure that I could cope with visiting a concentration camp. I've been to the 'Division 731' black museum in Harbin a couple of times (a Japanese military unit that specialised in germ warfare research and conducted some horrible medical experiments on Chinese prisoners), and that's a bleak and depressing experience - but it doesn't have the iconic impact of the German camps; the atrocities there didn't begin to approach the scale of the Holocaust.

The British Cowboy said...

If you don't break down at some point in the tour of the Holocause Museum, I doubt your humanity. It's one of the most perfectly organized museums I have ever seen.