Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Holocaust Exhibtion

I spent five days earlier this month in Poland's beautiful medieval city of Cracow (Krakow), with 12 young students. Although we enjoyed the beauty of the city and partook of its many culinary delights, the main purpose of our journey was to bear witness to the greatest crime of modern European history, the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews.

We began our exploration with a visit to Krakow's ancient Jewish ghetto, Kazimierz. For six centuries is was a hub of Jewish culture and most of Krakow's 64,000 Jews still lived here when the German army arrived in 1939. Today Jewish residents number less than twenty. It is a vibrant, hip part of the contemporary city, with all sorts of Jewish themed tours and Jewish cafes and restaurants, but these are run by gentiles.

We visited the old cemetery, once desecrated by the Nazis, but now restored.

Jewish Cemetery, Kazimierz

Likewise, we visited the synagogues, recently restored. Only one gives regular services for the local, tiny Jewish community.

We then crossed the River Vistula, to the suburb of Podgorze. In 1941 the German authorities forced all Jews out of the city proper and 15,000 of them were crammed into this new, much smaller ghetto. Those fit for work were selected on a large square. The atrocities committed in Podgorze are marked today by huge, empty chairs that dot the square.  They remind us of the Jewish families forced to move to this place, bearing only the belongings they could carry.  Sometimes children carried the family's chairs.


From here we walked to the former enamel factory of Oscar Schindler, made famous by Thomas Keneally's historical novel Schindler's Ark and the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List.

Schindler's Factory

The former factory has recently been opened to the public and Schindler's office restored:

Schindler's Office

The rest of the building now hosts an excellent permanent exhibition on life in Krakow during the German occupation.  As our museum guide informed us, the Germans deliberately refrained from destroying Krakow because of its perceived rich German cultural heritage. The city's population, relatively speaking, suffered less than other Poles, with the obvious exception of the Jewish population, who were selected for total extermination.

Our day at Auschwitz was complicated by the fact that the English and Dutch soccer teams had also chosen that day to visit.  All people might be equal, but we soon discovered that football celebrities are far more equal than students of history. They were led around the site as VIPs while we were shuttled back and forth, together with the thousands of other plebeians, ensuring that the young sportsmen could examine the site in peace, except for the camera crews which obstinately followed them.

Auschwitz I

We marched in silence past the torture cells, the starvation cells, the standing cells; the basement cell where Zyklone B was first used to gas Polish political prisoners and Russian POWs; the first, small gas chamber, with, just steps away, four ovens.

We saw the ramp at Auschwtz-Birkenau and the ruins of the huge gas chambers.

Some of the Italian football squad on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz II Birkenau

In the afternoon we attended specially arranged workshops, one on art from Auschwitz and the other on using primary documentation.  We saw an oath of secrecy, signed by an SS member, swearing that nothing that occured within the camp would ever be divulged to the public.

SS Oath of Secrecy

We saw files of death certificates where the time of death of prisoners was recorded down to the very minute.

Death Certificate for a Catholic Prisoner

We saw hundreds of photos of victims.

Stanislawa Drzewiecka, murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, aged 24

And we leafed through folders, hundreds of pages thick, of photo-negatives of victims. taken upon arrival at Auschwitz.

In 1943 the Nazi government liquidated the Podgorze ghetto and 8,000 Jews were moved to the newly established concentration camp of Plaszow.  These 8,000 included Schindler's Jews and it is this camp, under the command of the notorious sadist Amon Göth, which features in Spielberg's film.
One man saved by Schindler, Josef Bau,  later became a famous artist. We were lucky to visit a temporary exhibition of his work depicting life in this work camp.

Plaszow Work Camp, Josef Bau

There is no public transport link to Plaszow today. Tour groups don't stop there.  We hired a bus and a driver.

We were told that there is nothing to see there, that the place is never visited by tourists, but we insisted. Our driver just pulled off the motorway. On the day we visited there were no crowds, no football teams from EURO 2012. A few green hills overlook garish billboards, housing estates and shopping centres. At the top of one hill stands a monument. A man, dressed in a tracksuit, leaned against the monument doing stretching exercises.

Among the trees we came across two local families picnicking with their toddlers. A jogger drifted gently past. We came across a small memorial in Hebrew and an Israeli student among us translated. Then we sat under the monument, read the poem Death Fugue by Paul Celan and contemplated the savagery of the Holocaust.

Monument at Plaszow

We returned to Zürich and had one day to decide how we would present our journey.  Although we had enjoyed the churches, cafes and museums of Krakow, dined well every evening and, despite being forced to contemplate the horror, as a group we had had fun.  But for our presentation we decided the solemnity was called for.  So we put together a small exhibition on the places we had seen, we made a small memorial where visitors to the exhibition could write their thoughts and hopes and students recited poetry in German, Italian and English.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Time to Celebrate

It is a weekend of celebrations.  Many people throughout the world, so I’m told, are celebrating the British Queen’s Jubilee. Here in Switzerland, one of the world’s oldest republics, if not the oldest, June is also a month of celebration. But it is not a monarch that is being celebrated, but the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jean Jacques Rousseau.  The great philosophe is remembered not for who he was, but for what he achieved.

Rousseau, a native of the Republic of Geneva, was a self-made polymath whose impact is still felt in literature, music theory, political science, philosophy, science, education.  His influence continues today in how we respond to nature.  Every time we try to “get away from it all”, by going on a hike in the woods, or sleeping in a tent, or contemplating the sea, we are embodying his ideas.  Until Rousseau, nature was something that simply existed – it provided food and produced weather that destroyed potential food and brought about famine.  After Rousseau nature was something to be admired and was, even, the source of deep truth.

Many consider Rousseau to be the father of romanticism.  He certainly favoured emotion over reason, nature over civilization. His devotees included Goethe, Beethoven, Bryon and Shelley,all of whom visited his birthplace. But this out and out republican also included Emperor Joseph II, Emperess Catherine the Great, Emperor Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte among his protoges.  His romantic ideas can be read in works of art, garden landscaping, music and literature. He saw the “Nobel Savage” as being not just the equal of the European cosmopolitan citizen, but indeed his superior.  To be in touch with your natural self was a far greater value that to be a sophisticated urbanite. His autobiographical Confessions was the first of its kind, in which a writer reveals the internal workings of his own mind, including the painful blemishes.  Why should we be interested?  But we were and we still are. These days we expose ourselves continually on Facebook, revealing hundreds of photographs of ME and delighting in publicizing the likes of “I drank too much again”.  We are onsessed with the private lives of the famous. When we approach a work of art, or a poem, or piece of music, we expect it to be “authentic” – by exposing it’s autobiographical meaning.  Thanks to Rousseau we have produced a culture in which the subject has become the object.

Cultural movements that have attempted to kick against the culture of authenticity, like Russian Constructivism or Serialism, are reacting directly against the omnipresence of Rousseau in our mental landscape.  But, so far expressionism wins out against constructivism every time.

Rousseau popularized the idea that education should be appealing to the child; that beating was not a good instrument of learning, that the teaching needs to reach out to the sensitivity of the youngster, and that nature itself was the greatest of all teachers.  His educational novel Emile, was the best seller of the 18th century.  His influence was directly reflected in the Zurich pedagogue and teacher, Johan Pestalozzi, who came up with the idea that education should involve “the head, heart and hands” of the child.

Rousseau famously wrote that “man is born free yet everywhere is bound in chains”.  His Discourse on the Social Origins of Inequality and his The Social Contract are classics of political philosophy.  They are as pertinent today as ever. The former is considered to be one of the founding documents of socialism, the latter one of the founding documents of liberalism.  They influenced philosophers as diverse as Kant and Marx. In real terms his political thought was a major influence on the American Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson was a fan) and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  Rousseau, although no longer among the living, probably influenced the thought of the revolutionaries more than anyone else.  In 1793 they interred his body in the Pantheon in Paris where, even today, it shares pride of place with his arch-rival, Voltaire (who was most definitely not a fan).
Rousseau's Last Resting Place: The Pantheon, Paris

Had Rousseau had not chosen the route of the vagabond thinker, he could easily have earned his bread as a composer or musical director.  Indeed, while living in Venice he was offered a position as director of opera, which he turned down. His theoretical writings on music are considered by some to be the birth of modern musicology.

 Of course Rousseau was far from perfect. He was an impossible person and placed such demands on friendship that he left a trail in his wake of embittered ex-friends.  Notoriously he dumped his five children on an orphanage. And although he was a champion, indeed the champion, of equality, he did believe that women were different than men and needed an education that, from today’s perspective, leaves a lot to be desired.

Nevertheless, much of what he has left to us is worth remembering, namely: nature is not necessairily our enemy; that which seems primitive is not necessairly inferior and, above all else, take a critical approach to authority. A government gains its mandate from the people and retains it only when it is serving the people.

Since January of this year Switzerland has had a series of exhibitions,concerts and symposia on the works and life of Rousseau.  Yesterday the Swiss national classical radiostation had an entire day’s broadcasting dedicated to musical works, classical and jazz, that have been influenced by Rousseau’s ideas. The celebrations will continue through Rousseau’s birthday, on June 28th, until the end of the year.  Three hundred years from now, if we manage to preserve the rudiments of human civilization for that long, I doubt if anyone will be celebrating the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But Rousseau’s work and influence will still survive.