“How can life go on?” Reflections on the Holocaust and its Aftermath
“It is as when you stand on a lake and you throw a stone into the lake. First you have large ripples, then the ripples get smaller and smaller still, then the surface is calm, but the stone is still on the bottom. I appear like an ordinary human being, but the stone of my experience is still lying in my heart.” ~Ruth Foster
Forty members of her family, including her parents, were killed in the Holocaust.
She entered the Riga Ghetto at age 18, and was liberated at age 22.
There is a particular kind of grief that only victims of genocide have experienced. The killing of 11 million Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, disabled people, homosexuals and political opponents by the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945 was intertwined with global political and ideological questions which, in its aftermath, transcended the pain of individual loss. Thus the grief suffered by survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides is uniquely private and public. The question of how life can go on – how such grief can be overcome – is relevant today both on a private level and in a public, historical sense.
Three processes stand out as instruments to overcome, or at least come to terms with, the aftermath of the Holocaust: constructing memorials; achieving legal closure; and reconciling within communities.
The ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in Berlin is a good example of the post-war effort to reflect on the reality of the Holocaust. Commemoration of the Holocaust in Germany is, of course, even more complex and ideologically-loaded than elsewhere, so this monument in the German capital carries particular significance. It is situated in the city-centre, on the former boundary between East and West Berlin, with high-rise buildings on three sides and green space on the fourth. The ground beneath the memorial is deliberately uneven and the memorial itself consists of 2,700 concrete cuboids of varying dimensions arranged in a grid pattern.
This memorial, unlike many others, does not aim to educate its audience on the facts and figures of the Holocaust. Its purpose is more emotive and symbolic. The concrete shapes are taller and closer together in one region, which – for someone walking among them – conveys a certain loneliness and uneasiness. The uniform shape of the concrete, in conjunction with their varying sizes, perhaps alludes to the common humanity of the Holocaust’s individual victims. The grid system and uneven ground are said to represent the organised chaos of the Final Solution. The lack of a boundary around the memorial means that tourists and local people, controversially, walk through it on their way elsewhere; Richard Brody argues that this is deliberate, to illustrate how everyday life continued simultaneously to the perpetration of the Holocaust.
The importance of memorials in the struggle to overcome grief has, since the 1980s, been debated fiercely by historians. Some dismiss them as tools exploited by governments to construct and perpetuate a national collective memory of a historical event. Conversely, Jay Winter and others argue that memorials are instrumental in the mourning process that follows from genocide as “places where people grieved, both individually and collectively”. On one hand, they serve to remember those killed; on another, they represent a community’s solidarity in condemning the genocide.
Are memorials important focal points for the expression of grief and remorse? Or do they offer more to the deceased than to the mourner?
Achieving Legal Closure
The Nuremberg Trials were military tribunals held in the German city of Nuremberg between 1945 and 1946 which prosecuted members of the Nazi élite. Most people – survivors and historians alike – agree that the Trials were a necessary, just response to the Holocaust. However, the way that they were carried out has been criticised by many as too slow, too harsh, too lenient, or too small-scale. Here, the question is whether the outcome of the trials was enough to give closure to survivors of the Holocaust – some of whom sought retribution, and some of whom merely wanted to hear what their captors had to say for themselves.
Twelve prominent Nazis were sentenced to death at Nuremberg, three were sentenced to life imprisonment, four received prison terms between 10 and 20 years, and three were acquitted. Adolf Hitler himself had committed suicide in his bunker so was never tried. Whether these punishments were too lenient or too harsh, and whether this list of 22 defendants is long enough to represent the Nazi machine, is for the individual to decide. Survivors that sought retribution and for their captors to take responsibility for their atrocities were often let down. Almost all defendants professed in court that they were only following orders.
Much like the role of memorials, the role of legal retribution is different for each survivor of the Holocaust. Some did not feel capable of contemplating who should be punished and who should be forgiven. Others, no doubt, feared that Nazism would resurface and thus wanted to see their perpetrators either executed or imprisoned long-term. Whilst it may seem natural to desire closure after the trauma of surviving the Holocaust, some psychologists suggest that in some circumstances people prefer to avoid closure in order to help them preserve the memories of those they have lost.
It remains a topic of contention as to whether legal closure is essential for overcoming grief after genocide. It is worth considering, even decades later, whether enough was done at Nuremberg to give closure to all.
Reconciling Within Communities
A good first step towards reconciliation is to overcome the compulsion to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’, or ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’. It is hard for people to assign labels like victim and perpetrator in any concrete way. Indeed, a debate rages on even today amongst historians, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists about whether genocide is within our ‘human nature’. It is even harder then to move beyond this tendency of labelling when there remains such uncertainty and dispute on the topic.
Determinist historians like Daniel Goldhagen have argued that the nature of German anti-Semitic culture at the time made the vast majority of German people “pitiless” and “unsympathetic” to the suffering of Jewish people in the Holocaust. This would imply that anyone who wasn’t persecuted by the Nazis should be branded a perpetrator. Structuralist historians like Christopher Browning, in contrast, consider individual judgement calls, complex political circumstances, and psychological forces of coercion and conformity as factors which may have persuaded a minority of people to act against their moral and cultural values and thus perpetrate atrocities against others. This view suggests that it would be unfair to blame all Germans for the Holocaust. Evidently, in the aftermath of the Holocaust it was not straightforward to assign responsibility, and therefore it was nearly impossible to properly reconcile with those to whom responsibility was assigned.
Persecution of the minority groups who suffered under the Nazis continued in Eastern Europe and Germany long after the Holocaust ended. ‘Holocaust denial’, most prevalent in the United States, has further hindered the ‘moving on’ process for many victims of the atrocity. Holocaust denial discourages sufferers from opening up or sharing their experiences, for they may well encounter opposition for doing so. Now that we have built memorials commemorating the Holocaust and sentenced the leading Nazi élite, perhaps the challenge of reconciling communities of former perpetrators and victims is what we should work to conquer.
The question of how life can go on for Holocaust survivors does not have a straightforward answer. Neither is it solely a rhetorical question expressing incredulity. There are practical ways in which the grieving process in the wake of such trauma can be eased, three examples of which have been suggested here. The above list is not exhaustive, and for many survivors of the Holocaust the construction of memorials, the achievement of legal closure, and the reconciling of communities are not enough to deter the nightmares that continue to haunt them today.
Holocaust survivors have different coping mechanisms – just as we all do when we grieve. Some have never spoken again of their suffering, whilst others find comfort in telling their stories to new generations who can keep their memories alive into the future. Indeed, what this article has explored can only raise more questions, rather than answer any with any certainty.
This article has discussed the grief and mourning experienced by Holocaust survivors – the loss of their friends, their family, and their pre-1933 lives. Yet to be considered is the issue of trauma; the impact of the awful things that survivors suffered personally and witnessed happening to others right in front of them. Only once this second issue is addressed can we come close to truly reflecting on the aftermath of the Holocaust.
No matter how much empathy we employ, we will most likely never be able to comprehend how life can go on for survivors of the Holocaust. We can reflect, we can commemorate, we can educate. In this way, we – as the next generation – will ensure that their lives continue to go on in centuries to come.
Written by Sophie Turbutt
27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK.
For more information, see: http://hmd.org.uk/
For details of events in York around 27th January 2017, see: http://www.visityork.org/York-Holocaust-Memorial-Day-2017/details/?dms=3&feature=1009&venue=1694100
Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men (London: Penguin Books, 2001)
Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (London: Abacus, 1997) p439-440, 592
George L Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 79
Joanna Millan, Interview, (Worcestershire: Stourport High School, July 17th, 2012)
John H. Harvey and Eric D. Miller, “Toward a Psychology of Loss”, in Psychological Science, Vol. 9, No. 6 (California: Sage Publications, 1998): 433
Lyn Smith, Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (London: Edbury Press, 2006): 339-340
New Yorker, accessed January 1st, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-inadequacy-of-berlins-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe
Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory: France and Germany since 1989 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005): 102
Quentin Stevens and Karen A. Franck, Memorials as Spaces of Engagement: Design, Use and Meaning (London: Routledge, 2015): 23
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, accessed January 2nd, 2017, https://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007722
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Hi Sophie, just wanted to say how much I love this article. Your writing is superb, and it flows very well from beginning to end. You’ve covered some really complex notions in a succinct, easy-to-read form, and have really educated me on this topic. I also like how you’ve incorporated historiography into each section, and your language is really emotive! The beginning was very much a hook into the rest of the article Thank you very much for writing this!
Hi Vicky, I’m glad you liked it! I really appreciate your comments. I wanted to highlight that the Holocaust as a historical issue is much more complex than it appears on the surface and that it is still in need of further scholarly attention – so I’m really glad that came across! Thank you!