I recently finished reading The Complete Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel depicting his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew under the Nazis. It’s the most moving Holocaust narrative I’ve read since Primo Levi’s Is This A Man, and I really do recommend it, but it also reminded me of the continual struggle I experience in connecting with the Holocaust. That is not to imply that I am a David Irving, that I in any sense deny the absolute reality of Nazi genocide. I’ve studied the period more than once, I’ve read and watched numerous memoirs, I’ve visited Holocaust museums from Berlin to Washington DC. I’ve been to Auschwitz. It is true that mine is a generation separated from the event by over half a century – many people my age will never have met anyone with direct experience of the camps, or perhaps even the war itself. But even then, I don’t think that it’s the degree of separation that is the clincher in this disconnect; and I don’t think that it’s a phenomenon limited to the Holocaust.
I think your first exposure to the concept of Holocaust is akin to “where was I when John Lennon died?”. Many people distinctly remember that first encounter – perhaps because it’s often the first realisation of the horrible depths of suffering that humans can inflict upon each other. I was 9 or 10 when I stumbled across a history project display in the building where I had Saturday music school. I remember my mum asking me why I was so upset on the car journey home, and asking her to reassure me that people didn’t actually put other people in ovens. That people didn’t actually push other people into gas chambers to claw at the walls and suffocate in a pile. I don’t remember what she said, but I can’t imagine it was very reassuring; nothing short of outright lies would be.
That same feeling – disbelief followed by incomprehension followed by horror – is one that was experienced across Europe following the liberation of the death camps, and I think that that’s where the generational difference begins to step in. Would the photographs that horrified Europe in 1945 have the same effect now? Or has the ubiquity of images of tragedy, death and violence sapped us of our ability to engage with the reality behind them? It’s true that iconic photos still make their mark – a skeletal Sudanese child followed by a vulture, a three-year-old lying dead on a Turkish beach – but with a media saturated with pictures of Daesh militants hurling gays off towers and smiling with handfuls of decapitated heads, it becomes harder and harder to connect to the reality of suffering.
Susan Sontag has written extensively about the desensitising impact of photography, and she summarises her argument in Regarding The Pain Of Others:
“Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”
But even that is not the only reason that tragedy is hard to digest. I will cry every time I watch Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List, or read The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, but I didn’t cry when I stood in the room full of hundreds of thousands of leather shoes at Auschwitz. The West gasped at the tragedy of Aylan Kurdi’s death, but continues to harden its heart towards the million and counting migrants that have made the journey to Europe since the beginning of 2015. Iconic images are rare, as are books like Maus. An outstanding photograph can fight its way through the numbness of a society overloaded with images of pain, and an outstanding narrative can crystallise a tragedy of enormous proportions into something emotive. But gosh, it is not easy.
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
(The title also comes from Sontag: photographs have produced a “familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote … inevitable”.)