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.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes a personal account of a historical experience throws into sharp focus the realisation that history isn't just about timelines, headline events and foreign policies. I didn't know about this camp and had to re-read the number 3 just to be sure that my eyes weren't playing tricks on me.