Following the memorial commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps, J. BROOKS SPECTOR is moved to think about it in light of another anniversary – 150 years since the end of slavery in America.
Over this recent Christmas-New Year’s break, the writer spent much of his time sorting through a lifetime accumulation of books and papers, and starting to organise a home office in a newly outfitted room over the garage of his house. One of the biggest tasks was to bring together, upstairs, all of the books on Africa that were scattered throughout the house. This left enough space for all the other books in the bookshelves in the downstairs study. Maybe it was just coincidence, but two important books, both published in 1975, Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews and David Brion Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, ended up on the same bookshelf, adjacent to each other.
This, in turn, seems a strangely apt circumstance for what was happening in the wider world. On 27 January, the world commemorated the day when 70 years earlier, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps were liberated by Soviet troops in the final agonising months of World War II. The solemn ceremonies, televised live, worldwide, included some of the last few remaining survivors of those camps as honoured guests, together with numerous world leaders. Beyond the words of the remarks, those in attendance set out candles of remembrance in the snow and cold at the memorial, and even the most cold-hearted must have been moved to deep reflection by all of this.
An important part of this particular act of remembrance was the recognition of so many other genocides, and so many other victims, even as the total weight of numbers from Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps was already so enormous as to virtually defy understanding. In the speeches and commentary on this act of remembrance, commentators have been careful to acknowledge that while Europe’s Jewry clearly represented the largest share of the victims of Nazi hatred, there were also many other victims. Gays, the mentally handicapped, socialists and communists, Gypsies, and Russian prisoners of war were also fed into the maw of that continent-wide charnel house.
But as important a date as the liberation of Auschwitz certainly is (and should remain) an object of global contemplation, the writer has noticed this date’s closeness with yet another important anniversary, one that speaks to something of the same two impulses: horrific, unspeakable cruelty and, finally, a step towards acknowledgement of the crimes and a move towards redemption. As it happened, while the focus was on Auschwitz, one of the writer’s acquaintances asked why, in the midst of all the acknowledgements of those terrible acts of inhumanity, had no one also recalled and commented upon the horrors of the African slave trade. Was it, just perhaps, because so many of the attendees at the Auschwitz ceremonies happened to come from countries that had had a hand, one way or another, in that vast trade that enslaved tens of millions far from their homes?
At that point, the writer noted that another date close to the Auschwitz liberation date had a special resonance for slavery. One hundred and fifty years ago, on 31 January 1865, the US Congress took its decisive step to approve the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that reads, in its entirety:
“Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Of course, this amendment still had to be approved by three-quarters of the country’s state legislatures, but that had happened by the end of the year and, given the politics of that period, state-by-state passage became assured, once Congress had spoken definitively.
Still, anyone who has viewed Steven Spielberg’s recent film, Lincoln, knows just how intense a political struggle had to play out to achieve passage of this 47-word constitutional amendment. This was despite the fact the southern Confederacy was in its final days as a military force. In the popular mind, ever since Lincoln had issued his ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ at the beginning of 1863, the war had been transformed into a struggle to end southern slavery, as well as to preserve the Union. But just as clearly, there was intense war weariness in the North, in the face of the unremitting casualty lists, as well as the growing cost of the war. Some legislators – perhaps even a majority – might well have accepted something less definitive or final than that amendment, if a less extreme response to slavery would have meant the South would have ended its fight.
As an historical aside, it actually took two more constitutional amendments to confirm the newly manumitted slaves’ irrevocable citizenship and that a person’s race should not be a bar to the right to vote. Backed by federal troops, these new citizens participated in the governments of the southern states (including several former slaves elected to the US Congress) until those troops were withdrawn after the 1876 election. In that closely fought presidential election, Democrat Samuel J Tilden had actually won the popular vote, apparently defeating Republican candidate Rutherford B Hayes.
But there were sufficient states whose electoral vote count was so disputed the election continued to be in doubt. Eventually, a congressional commission was appointed to adjudicate the disputed electoral votes. Voting along strict party lines they gave Hayes the White House – but with a handshake agreement federal troops would be withdrawn from the South in response. Once that happened, the newly enfranchised African Americans were successively driven from the voting booths and elected offices, leading to almost a century of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation across the South, something only seriously challenged by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Now there is a difference, obviously, between the Holocaust and the vast effects of the slave trade and slavery across centuries and continents. With the first, the express goal was the extermination of whole peoples while the purpose of slavery and the slave trade was to extract labour for as little cost as possible from people transported into permanent bondage, and worked until they dropped. The effects of the latter meant whole societies throughout Africa were fatally disrupted as millions were packed into ships for the Middle Passage. Not surprisingly, many died even before landfall in the New World. This also became the fate of their descendants until the rollback of slavery finally began with a successful slave rebellion in Haiti at the beginning of the 19th century and ended, finally, in Brazil in 1888.
Thus the challenge is how to acknowledge, to commemorate, and to force the remembering of such dolorous circumstances. Among Holocaust survivors and those who would study it, for many years, it seemed just too enormous a thing to talk about openly. Holocaust studies only really began to make their appearance as an academic discipline in the 1960s, around the time of Adolph Eichmann’s abduction from Argentina and subsequent trial in Jerusalem. For Americans, at least, the television mini-series, Holocaust, helped further underscore the need to remember. This show had come to the small screen just a year after the 1977 series, Roots, that had been drawn from author Alex Haley’s personal tale of his uncovering of a family line right back to Gambia, a television series that had become one of the most watched television series ever.
Perhaps the time was finally right to remember. Since then, numerous cities and universities have established Holocaust museums and centres as well as flourishing African American Studies departments, all in an effort to understand – and to make sure this understanding is not forgotten. The slave transhipment points of Gorée Island and Elmina have become important tourist spots in Africa. And the most recent such initiative in America is the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, now due to open in 2016. A centrepiece of this museum’s collection will be an actual slave cabin discovered on a plantation in South Carolina. Perhaps South African author Don Mattera was right about the power of the act of remembering (and preventing any reoccurrence) when he gave his own memoir of the apartheid years the title, Memory Is The Weapon.
But perhaps too, both these tragedies are impossible to encompass in rational ways through books and exhibits. Perhaps we continue to struggle with how best to convey such things to the generations that will follow, long after the last survivor of the concentration camps has finally passed away, and when even the great-grandchildren of slaves are no longer among us and family stories have been largely forgotten.
In addressing such a need, in Berlin, the 10-year-old Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, with a contribution by artist Richard Serra – consists of 2,711 grey stelae set out in an otherwise featureless vista. The monument is connected to an underground space where the names of all known victims, drawn from the records at the Yad Vashem memorial and research centre in Israel, have been inscribed. Still, the symbolism of even this monument has remained controversial to some. Critics have argued it was an unnecessary effort, almost as if they had wanted to scream, “How could you possibly forget what happened? Will these stones help any further?”
Meanwhile, right around on the other side of the globe, in the shallow waters off the Caribbean island of Grenada, there is a sculptural installation, a ring of people, that can really only be seen fully while under water. Its sculptor, Jason de Caries Taylor, has continued to deny the popular interpretation that his installation represents the captives thrown overboard from the slave ships if they died before reaching their destination or who had died while trying to escape. Nonetheless, this very understanding of his work has taken hold in the popular imagination, perhaps because it seems to so perfectly capture the poignancy and horror of the thing. Or, as the Book of Revelation has it, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” DM
Photo: General view of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland, Sunday 28 January 2007, during the commemorations of the 62nd anniversary of the liberation. The date of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau was proclaimed by the United Nations as Holocaust Memorial Day, as a remembrance of the millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust. EPA/CIRO FUSCO