I was looking at this photo yesterday and it made me cry. It’s from the Yad Vashem archives and they linked it on twitter because it’s Hanukkah now. The photo depicts a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in the Westerbork transit camp, Netherlands, December 1943. It made me think of a film I saw a few days ago called Army of Crime (2009), which depicts the events leading up to the Affiche Rouge.
The title of the film is taken from the writing on a Nazi propaganda poster, in which they presented prominent resistance fighters as foreign criminals. It also details the lives of the resistance fighters on this poster who were called the “Manouchian Group”. The names of the members of the group who were brutally tortured and executed were: Celestino Alfonso, Olga Bancic, József Boczov, Georges Cloarec, Rino Della Negra, Támas Elek, Maurice Fingercwajg, Spartaco Fontano, Imre Békés Glasz, Jonas Geduldig, Léon Goldberg, Szlama Grzywacz, Stanislas Kubacki, Arpen Lavitian, Cesare Luccarini, Missak Manouchian, Marcel Rayman, Roger Rouxel, Antonio Salvadori, Willy Szapiro, Amadeo Usseglio, Wolf Wajsbrot and Robert Witchitz.
I wrote their names out because this act of typing them out represents something more than just words. As did the use of so many words during this war. It worries me, in fact it terrifies me, that we forget that. I read yesterday that a man was cleared of breaching the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act when he called a Jewish man a “big fat Jewish slob”, telling him that “Hitler was right about you bastards”. He was actually cleared after saying something like that.
I don’t care if someone else was or was not in the presence of these two men when such a statement was made; what makes it intolerable is not who else could possibly have heard it, but the fact that it was even made. Words are not just words. Words uttered in private, words chanted to a crowd, words whispered in someone’s ear, words shouted to a group, words printed on a poster, words written silently in your head: they all carry power, and the power to dehumanise. Words were an integral part of the Nazi machine.
Victor Klemperer wrote in the Language of the Third Reich how “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously. ... language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”
You do not get to say the words “Hitler was right” as if they mean nothing but “venting”. These words, they are a poison, they are an act of violence, even if you just think them and even if you say them to just one person.
It may seem strange to make my last post of the year about this subject. But it seems fitting for me to do so; to conclude with something that means so much to me. So often I wonder what the hell I’m doing with this blog and then something comes to remind me that words are not just words. I don’t pretend that this blog has any meaning to anyone but myself, but I have words, and I’m able to write, and I’ll continue to do so.
Happy Hanukkah, happy holidays and happy New Year. I’ll leave you with two letters:
Missak Manouchian’s last words in a letter to his wife, Melinée:
My dear Melinée, my beloved little orphan,
In a few hours I will no longer be of this world. We are going to be executed today at 3:00. This is happening to me like an accident in my life; I don’t believe it, but I nevertheless know that I will never see you again.
What can I write you? Everything inside me is confused, yet clear at the same time.
I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of victory and the final goal. I wish for happiness for all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of the freedom and peace of tomorrow. I’m sure that the French people, and all those who fight for freedom, will know how to honour our memory with dignity. At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people, or for anyone at all; everyone will receive what he is due, as punishment and as reward. The German people, and all other people, will live in peace and brotherhood after the war, which will not last much longer. Happiness for all ... I have one profound regret, and that’s of not having made you happy; I would so much have liked to have a child with you, as you always wished. So I’d absolutely like you to marry after the war, and, for my happiness, to have a child and, to fulfil my last wish, marry someone who will make you happy. All my goods and all my affairs, I leave them to you and to my nephews. After the war you can request your right to a war pension as my wife, for I die as a regular soldier in the French army of liberation.
With the help of friends who’d like to honour me, you should publish my poems and writings that are worth being read. If possible, you should take my memory to my parents in Armenia. I will soon die with 23 of my comrades, with the courage and the serenity of a man with a peaceful conscience; for, personally, I’ve done no one ill, and if I have, it was without hatred. Today is sunny. It’s in looking at the sun and the beauties of nature that I loved so much that I will say farewell to life and to all of you, my beloved wife, and my beloved friends. I forgive all those who did me evil, or who wanted to do so, with the exception of he who betrayed us to redeem his skin, and those who sold us out. I ardently kiss you, as well as your sister and all those who know me, near and far; I hold you all against my heart. Farewell. Your friend, your comrade, your husband,
P.S. I have 15,000 francs in the valise on the rue de Plaisance. If you can get it, pay off all my debts and give the rest to Armenia. MM
Marcel Rayman’s last letter to his mother and brother, Simon:
When you read this letter, I’m sure it will cause you extreme pain, but I will have been dead for a while, and you’ll be consoled by my brother who will live happily with you and give you all the joy I would have liked to give you.
Forgive me for not writing at greater length, but we are all so joyful that it’s impossible to think of the pain you will feel. I can only say one thing, and that’s that I love you more than anything in the world, and I would have liked to live for your sake alone. I love you, I kiss you, but words can’t describe what I feel.
Your Marcel who adores you and who’ll think of you up to the last minute. I adore you, and long live life.
My dear Simon. I’m counting on you to do all I can’t do myself. I kiss you, I adore you, I’m content, live happily and make Mama happy the way I would have had I lived. Live the beautiful and joyful life that you will all have. Tell all my friends and comrades that I love them all. Don’t pay any attention if my letter is crazy, but I can’t remain serious. I love everyone and long live life. Let everyone live happily.
Maman and Simon I love you and would love to see you again.