Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Malevolence


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
(erected over the former "Death Zone" near the Brandenburg Gate)

It's too easy to imagine that you and I, naturally, would have been among the Good Guys, and would have refused to join the Nazi Party, defended and sheltered our Communist, Socialist, and Jewish friends and colleagues, and bravely accepted the inevitable consequences. Far too easy. I think there have been enough experiments that demonstrate  – even without the pressures brought to bear by the need to earn a living within a totalitarian state – how readily the sociopathic brute sleeping within most of us may be awakened to conclude this would probably not have been the case. If you are Jewish, which I am not, you will have a different set of questions to ask yourself about Germany in the 1930s, and perhaps also some about Israel in the current day, but it would be impertinent of me to suggest what these might be.

So, let's assume we all have a retrospective share in the guilt for what happened in Germany in the 1930s, in the sense that we would, at best, probably have turned a blind eye to what was going on all around us, have indeed probably been turning a blind eye to terrible events in the world in more recent decades, and probably would still do so if something similar were to happen closer to home involving some other scapegoated group of convenient "others". Nobody wants to make trouble for themselves. "First they came for the socialists, etc."

Bizarrely, this marks the "Walter Benjamin Playground"
outside the Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum.
No, really. Pretentious misstep? You decide!

Compacted history...
Exhibition in the excavated SD torture cells,
looking across a Berlin Wall remnant
to former GDR government buildings...

I thought I was beyond being shocked by images of the Holocaust, but was deeply disturbed by some photographs I saw in Berlin's J├╝disches Museum (Jewish Museum) last week. These were not images of degradation, cruelty, and horror, however, but something far more subtle. A German-Jewish man (I've forgotten his name and, idiotically, didn't take notes) documented the antisemitic signs posted in the 1930s around a few rural towns and villages with his camera. The signs are quite professionally done – nicely sign-painted, legible, and permanent-looking – and say things like "Jews are not welcome here", "Jews enter these premises at their own risk", "The owner of the business opposite is a Jew", and so on. They are almost amusing in their obsessive single-mindedness, and in the fact that any Jewish family with the misfortune to live in one of those villages would, I am sure, have been perfectly well aware without such prompting that they had outstayed their welcome. No, I think these signs are intended for the edification of non-Jewish neighbours, a craven form of one-upmanship. If you have ever watched Edgar Reitz's groundbreaking TV series Heimat (or indeed lived in any village anywhere) I think you'll recognise the truth of this.

So these signs are not the ravings of some crazed urban antisemite, but a symptom of the systematic exclusion and persecution of Jews simply for being Jews in the rural German heartland in the 1930s. Equivalent, I suppose, to the "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish" signs that were displayed in English guest-houses in the 1950s, but backed up by official sanction. Having long ago become desensitized to images of emaciated human beings, huge-eyed behind barbed wire, or of corpses stacked like firewood, I found these simple, objective, amateur photographs shocking, pointing as they do, in one direction, at the bemusement of the photographer (who had the good fortune to get out of there shortly thereafter, in the process nearly losing this precious roll of film to border guards) and, in the other, at the pure, almost innocent malevolence in the hearts of his persecutors. And I admit I felt, for what little it's worth, "guilty as charged".


Inside the Garden of Exile
Jewish Museum, Berlin

[N.B. I'm away most of this week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

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