When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria. It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin. I don’t know how many died. Probably no one does. Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully. I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening. But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye. I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.
We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it. It’s a lot more complicated than that of course. In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it. Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off. His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit, rework and reshape as we try to master the past. The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz. It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia. But remember we must. The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.
I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’ Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible… At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’ And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.
And for the sake of the past. The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives. First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity. For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice. Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability. As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed. This load may also scream.
And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices. Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter. The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide. Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin - music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.
Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day. She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne. She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise. She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy. It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen. She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated. Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers. Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.
Hélène Berr, Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)
Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)