Quite rightly there’s a lot of coverage of Holocaust Memorial Day and if you haven’t yet watched Night Will Fall, I’d urge you to do so. It’s both deeply distressing and compelling at the same time, and all credit to Channel 4 for showing it at last. The footage shot by allied film units of the camps at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek shows the power of the image, moving in this case but no less serious for that, to affect us and make an incomprehensible nightmare tangibly real.
I’ve talked for years with friends, Jewish and not, who are becoming more worried about the rise we’re now seeing in anti-semitic sentiment and incidents, and who struggle to put into words how to explain why this should be ringing such deeply rooted warning bells. I’m not Jewish, so can’t claim to feel it at first hand. As you might expect from the few of us who explain things for a living, some of us have shared a wonder if a single image could do this. Could one image move us from being an onlooker, however informed and empathetic, to knowing ourselves what that feeling is?
I’m utterly sure that what is happening now in our communities cannot be explained by the un-nuanced and misguided reference that sometimes gets trotted out that pins the current threat – and reaction to it – on current foreign policy issues. That “explanation” not only morally ambiguous, but misses the point. It may be causally accurate to blame Israel’s current government and its policy for the rise in anti-Jewish threat, although I personally don’t buy that for a second and would argue like hell that even if true, it’s wrong. However, I don’t intend to go into my own opinion here or argue the rights and wrongs of the Middle East, because what I’m talking about is nothing to do with what a sovereign state does or doesn’t do, for whatever reason, here and now.
The question I’m grappling with is why a rise in abuse and threat against our Jewish communities should be of such fundamental concern to my friends and us, now, here, 70 years later, in a different century and a different country? Why is it, some ask, that my Jewish friends feel the insecurity, that as one put it and many others have said, wherever they live they never really unpack? Why does this run so deep, and how do you explain or illustrate it in a way that reaches everyone?
Looking online last night, still trying to explain the sentiment as much as I can, I wonder if I’ve finally found my own answer in this set of images?
Singling out people for their faith or ethic group – or for their sexual orientation or politics – may start with abuse on the street. But this is how it can end.
At Auschwitz, they’re working to make sure the shoes of the children are preserved.
One photograph. All the explanation you need.