Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Death by Loose Garment

The whole experience of the victims of the Holocaust, it seems to me, revolved around the fragility of the moment, the overwhelming threat of indiscriminate murder and the abandonement of any sense of future life.

As someone who expects to see tomorrow, and will even dare to expect to see next year, a life lived without the prospect of living is virtually impossible for me to grasp. There nearest I would ever get to this would be to recieve a very acute terminal diagnosis whose prognosis was of weeks not months.

Two accounts were offered to us as we studied this event. One was the account of Roman Frister (author of the book 'The Cap') who testifies to an event in the Camps where he discovered the theft of his cap one day. To me and you, that is an event of little importance or significance, but to an inmate of a Camp, it was tantamount to a death warrant. To gather on the parade ground without a cap would bring a bullet instantaneously. Frister gives an account of how he had to find another cap and steal it during the night so that he would survive in the morning. He tells of the crack of the pistol as the person whose cap he stole was granted the fate he had avoided and was summarily murdered. In the calm of western life in the third millenium, this seems abhorrent - that one man would sacrifice another for his own survival - but we cannot judge, we can never judge anyone who lived in the grip of the insurmountable terror of the Final Solution.

The second account we recieved was more a general account of camp life. Life and death were administered in the most mundane of things - and the distribution of the striped pyjama suits that we are all familiar with, was one such event. You got what you were given - and if you were unlucky enough to recieve trousers that were too large, you would be impeded in your work because of needing to hold them up. This would almost certainly dimish productivity and that would bring a death sentence. Death was indeed brought forth by loose garments. The irony of the discovery of this account when matched up against the modern fashion for mimicking loose trousers prison-style does not escape me.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Fragility of History

I am not a particularly foolish man, but at times I work with a set of pre-concieved ideas that are proven to be utterly wrong.

The formation of histories is one such area, and I speak as one who is sensitive to the idiosycracies of the historian's art - the need for primary sources, an rigourous historicity, and so on.

We read about the Concentration and Death Camps like there are books and books of primary sources, like we have a corpus of knowledge that is almost limitless. The opposite is more often the case, none more so that the history surrounding the Belzec Camp in Poland. You may not have heard of it, I hadn't, but 400,000 Jews, Roma and others perished within its fences. Only three - yes 3 (0.00075%) of its population survived that camp and only one person chose to write his testimony. That single solitary testimony is all that we have to priece together the story of Belzec, and one can only shudder at the near completeness with which the Nazis had executed their targets. How slim the margin to losing that history, that story, the witness to nearly half a million lives.

The same was also the case for Flora Mendelowicz who had created an album of pictures taken at the time of the deportations and Aktions to Auschwitz Berkenau. The album is a subtantial primary source which was discovered by wild chance in a pile of confiscated Jewish property by someone recognising a face on an open page by utter chance. A chain of recognition restored that album back to Flora who could complete the narrative after the war had ended. Given the destruction of property, the passage of time, the conditions in which that album languished for so long - it is remarkable and almost inconcievable that it managed to be re-united to its owner, let alone a Jewish owner who survived.

The primary sources of both these events are significant in the extreme, and are central to much that we regard as truth concerning these events - but how easy, how likely is was that neither should have made the light of day. They exceed the limits of needles in haystacks by some distance.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Liberation as a new Imprisonment

Something that hit me very hard during the Seminar was the fact that a pre-conception was disproved - the preconception that liberation from the Nazi forces by the Allied forces was not a moment of unreserved celebration. I am sure I had seen pictures of the inmates in their blue and white stripes, reaching for the skies in jubilation behind a fence as GI Joe smoked his cigar - but it seems that that just wasn't case.

The return to life brought with it the following issues:
 - illness: so many of the inmates were riddled with disease and the conditions brought about by chronic malnutrition
 - starvation meant that they couldn't eat properly. One testimony talked of the vomit inducing food that thew liberating troops carried, food that was far too rich to be palateable
- having to think about 'tomorrow' for the first time brought with it pressures that to us may seem difficult to grasp. The inmate's world-view was once again shifted in the greatest way.
 - searching for those who are not there: if you were a Polish Jew (numbering 3.5million before the Holocaust), you would fast discover that there was almost certainly no-one left (3million of that number perished) - and with them their way of life, their crafts, skills and trades, oral histories, identities, family connections, contexts, someone (anyone) with who you can talk to about about life in the Ghetto, and so on.
 - weddings proliferated: a need to grasp life meant for Jews that marriage had to precede pro-creation and a baby-boom followed as new couples often had their two babies [the first to create a legacy, a second incase the first died]
 - relocation: their homes didn't exist nor their ways of life. From one state of camp life followed the Displaced Persons Camps, in some circumstances in the same location as under the Nazis. These camps existed for some years, and therefore some Jews were 'imprisoned' for longer under liberation than under Nazi rule.
 - revenge instincts: for most people, survival was their revenge - and this was brought to us in real terms by one of the survivors who spoke to us - but for others, revenge took a more typical form in its appearance, which brought eith it renewed sanctions.
 - society: for a people of a Faith of Observance, there was a future without many of the tools of that observance. Their Scriptures, teachers, synagogues, traditions, backgrounds, and dignities had all been robbed. Children needed to be educated but there were no teachers. The sick needed healing but many of the doctors and nurses were gone. Even cultural expressions of life had been erased; whole football teams for example.

It is hard for us to imagine how a liberation could be anything other than the best of things, but for a people who often regarded dying as the best thing that could happen to them during those years, a life given back seemed to many like a renewed curse.

Friday, 22 October 2010


With apologies for the delay, I have added a Flickr stream so you can enjoy some of my pictures if you do wish!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

What's In a Name?

I have now returned to my home, full of the thoughts and emotions formed in me this last two weeks. I will remain at work in this blog until I have come to a place of ‘peace’ with those things.
This post follows on a little from an earlier one regarding identity. I can say, with absolute certainty, that my name is David Michael Cloake. I know where I was born and when. To me these are simple facts, ones I clearly take for granted. They require no real reflection, no real attention. I can fill in forms, apply for documents, make statements – and in all of these things be sure that I stand on a steady platform of rock.
Before we left Jerusalem, we listened to the considerable gifts of the accounts of two survivors of the Holocaust. One lady was a baby at the time of Liberation, the other gentleman a young child of four. For the man, he was sure who he was. He had papers, a trail of information which connected him to his parents, grandparents other family members. To this day, these documents remain in his possession in a small shabby case. From the outsider’s perspective, it would look like he just keeps this stuff handy for when he talks to groups like our as he does frequently. I think though, if I were an insider to his world, I would be willing to believe that the fragility of proof that such faded and stained documents offer is too cherished and valuable to be let far from his sight.
Then we heard from the other lady – herself a baby at the Liberation. She was saved from murder because her mother handed her to a passing woman as she queued for a transport. I can’t begin to comprehend the scale of impending terror that would cause a young mother to hand her baby to a strangers, fairly certain that that was the last moment they would ever share. In this ‘transaction’, all chains of identity were severed. This girl was passed like a like human parcel in a party game for years until the moment came when she was told this story in her mid-teens. She learned that she wasn’t the person she thought she was, that her parents weren’t her parents. From her adoptive parents she learned what may have been her ‘real’ name, and from a previous carer, she received a picture of herself with yet another name written on the back. She stopped trying to work out who she was when she turned 70.
The fact of our name is as nothing when we can take its accuracy for granted. It is there, like our nose and ears – and that is often where we end the thought process. Yet, when its veracity is questioned and we cannot trust even our own name, I am left wondering how reality, in any form, feels.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Czerniakow’s Children

I am not a poet, but this is the best/only vehicle for me to consolidate so many thoughts and feelings brought into relief by the Yad Vashem Museum - an imposting building that is, broadly, a concrete prism - walled at one end and open the other, leading the visitor through the horrors of the Holocaust to a breathtaking view of open space over the Promised Land

I ascend Zion’s Mount with the mud of the Galilee’s Sea on my shoes
to visit the place where they are remembered.
I am a Christian man; watchful and prayerful - repentant.
‘A memory and a name’ for Czerniakow’s children
That is what is left for them – all else is lost –
all that remains are their defiled exhibits.
Our history was once their future.

Above me the sun beats, and inside my heart aches
as I dare to enter that place;
a temple to death or a monument to life?
A death carefully formed and life carelessly smashed
upon the rock of ‘purity’ and the silent echoes of the words of my forefathers.

Inside this concrete sarcophagus
We learn of the ‘lambs to the slaughter’ – of ghettos and lost hope.
So many empty brown eyes without future;
staring at us beyond pleading, for lives long since snuffed.
Starving children, broken hearts, spirits extinguished;
times of heroes and monsters, where The Book and gun collided.
In the silence of our aching hearts we hear the screams of children;
Mummy is gone and daddy too; ‘still your cries little darlings –
everything will be okay, just you see’.

For Czerniakow’s children there is no hope,
save for the release from the grasp of the oppressor;
the suffocating death grip of Hitler’s believers.
Release in life or freedom though death;
the little ones look on not knowing which.
We are onlookers, safe behind glass.
Free to leave but compelled to go on – to hear screams,
to hear silence – both of them deafening.
‘My mummy and daddy are in the smoke above Poland’
Look on if you dare, passing stranger –
Welcome to a new world long dead.

To six million lost souls, so many names unknown,
I pray for forgiveness that I still have life;
that my own brown-eyed babies know safety;
that a belief and a culture won’t murder my Love,
and my prayers won’t cause my extinction.
For six million lost souls, in all that they were,
I pray that they find peace and the face of their God
weeping for them, arms outstretched.
‘Enter this place my little ones, you are safe now;
The last door to close behind you is this.’

Adam Czerniakow was the leader of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in the Warsaw Ghetto. Such chairmen administered the decisions and policies of the Nazis. In 1942, he took his own life rather than betray his fellow Jews.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

On Being Not Known

The seminar which is drawing to a close has focussed its attentions on several groups of people - naturally most significantly the victims (others being the perpetrators and the 'bystanders' within the frameworks of definitions that they imply). I was struck by an aspect of the Liberation which, when explained seem so obvious, and only serves to magnify the scale of the horror of the Shoah / Holocaust yet more.

Let me put this in a personal framework. In my life, I am 'daddy' to the girls, husband to my wife, Fr David to the Christians of Aylesbury (broadly), The Revd D Cloake to the postman, David to my family, Mr Cloake to retailers who have served me in the past. To so many people I am known. Even here, to those who less familiar with my personally might simply know me my blog-dentity - the Vernacular Curate. I am recognised by the children of the school where I minister. My face is familiar to my neighbours and to a good number of anonymous people in the town where I live. My sense of personal identity is to a greater or lesser extent, placed within the context of relationships that I have formed across the range of my life. My school memories, my former-work memories - and my part in them is a shared thing.

A factor that faced so many of the liberated Jews at the end of the Second World War was the overwhelming fact that for so many of them, there was no-one in the world who remembered them. If they died, they would be un-mourned and un-remembered. They did not exist in the framework of reference of another human soul. In so many ways, they became 'not known' - or even more palpably, no-one.

As human creatures, we exist in relationship to others. Our identity is in a significant way in their hands whether that should please us or not. Becoming 'not known' seems to be a cruel blow to those people who were robbed of 'self' and heritage by simply being incarcerated in those barracks awaiting their moments of death. Liberation to what? At least they were a number in the camps.