Reflections on the Commandment to Remember

Florian Freund / Hans Safrian: Expulsion and Extermination

The publication of reports from concentration and extermination camps is often justified by political and pedagogical interests. Of fundamental significance is the following poignant observation made by Wolfgang Pohrt: This remembrance needs no justification, for "in many ways the living can help themselves; but not the dead, whose murder was licensed by humanity. For them, whose terrible end cannot be altered or undone by reparations, there is only one hope: that the entreaty not to forget above all others be heard by the survivors." (1)


Hermann Langbein, a former prisoner in Auschwitz, describes what "being remembered" meant for inmates like himself: "The SS ultimately made sure that nobody who contemplated resistance could hope that his deed would become known to posterity if he had to pay for it with his life. His act would be swept away in the general chaos of extermination, and no witness would ever be able to report it." (2) But the question of remembering was not only of great importance to the prisoners who took part in acts of resistance; numerous survivors report that the thought of being able to bear witness to what had happened was a significant motive in the struggle to survive. For this reason, prisoners in many ghettos and camps risked their lives to preserve records concerning the dead or murdered: Jews from the Lodz ghetto took it upon themselves to save a considerable segment of the ghetto archives, (3) and inmates of the concentration camp Ebensee in upper Austria hid what they considered to be the most important documents - the camp's death lists - in a fire extinguisher. (4)


In Austria, only a few scattered memorials, cemeteries, and grave sites serve as markers to that country's murdered Jews. Societal development after 1945, characterized by reconstruction and a new prosperity, left little room for remembrance. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it, "What the ancient Jews conceived to be the most malicious curse was now cast upon the dead: 'May you never be remembered.'" (5)


One of the essential goals of Project "Registration by Name: Austrian Victims of the Holocaust" should be, therefore, to combat this "betrayal of the dead." (6)


The Nazi murder machinery was to function as secretly as possible, without leaving behind the slightest trace. Thus, special commandos were selected to dispose systematically of the corpses. In his foreword to "Totenbuch Theresienstadt", the chief rabbi of Vienna, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, emphasized: "It is for us incomparably more painful to commemorate the dead who have no burial site, whose remains we were not given the chance to be treated with respect; whose death, in fact, could not even be confirmed in same cases."


"The true remains of the Holocaust," writes Raul Hilberg, "consist of paper: of files from the bureaucracy of the 'Third Reich' and the Axis powers." (7) Despite wide gaps, an enormous stock of records exists in all countries once occupied by the Nazis. The fate of thousands of people, however, is often reported in only one line of a single document: "During a 'cleansing action' in the Sluzk-Kleck area, 5,900 Jews were shot by Res. Pol. Btl. 11." (8)


Nevertheless, the fate of a large number of deported and murdered Jews can be reconstructed, as in the example of the German "Gedenkbuch". (9) While it is difficult enough to record the numbers of victims, the necessary reconstruction of tens of thousands of individual fates poses even more of a problem, as the following study attempts to illustrate. Still, it is a quest that is both feasible and necessary, and in addition presents a scientific challenge: feasible, owing to the availability of sources throughout the world; necessary, because 'a person dies the moment he is no longer remembered;' and a scientific challenge as it creates an opportunity to collect scattered sources worldwide and promote further research.


As the project should demonstrate, Austrian Jews were not an anonymous mass, not a mere statistical number of victims; thus the study deals with the individual fates of tens of thousands of men, women and children.


It will be necessary to go one step beyond the project "Registration by Name: Austrian Victims of the Holocaust" as it is presented here and explore the role which remembrance of victims of Nazism plays in the collective memory of Austrians; for it must be asked what the term "collective memory" means in this context, and what problems exist for the constitution of a collective memory in a society which for a long time blurred perpetrator and victim. Can the real victims be mourned if they were never regarded with a sympathy that is a precondition for mourning? What is the significance of the mass murder of Jews - and the Austrian participation therein - for the shaping of a national identity? What place does it have in the Austrian mentality, past and present?


Hanno Loewy, in a recently published book, writes that it is an "historically unique process" when "a society remembers its own crimes which were committed against innocent people." (10) For some, the memory of the Holocaust, which involves the memory of those who were murdered, awakens a latent aggression: "The perpetrators, whose plan of annihilation did not fully succeed, remained - in a way that until today seems to have gone unnoticed - 'hanging on' to their victims; and any attempt to cut the Gordian knot ends in an appeal to those ideologies which prepared the ground for the Holocaust." (11) The question needs to be asked whether this analysis also applies to Austrian perpetrators, and if so, whether it helps explain the past reluctance to discuss the immense crimes of Nazism and the reappearance of anti-Semitism especially in recent years, when National Socialism has become a more open subject for discussion.


Lutz Niethammer, in a general article about "the duty of remembrance and the history of experience", argues that a "lasting rootedness of a basic historical experience in one's consciousness is only conceivable in the nexus of three dimensions: individual experience, scientific enlightenment and media representation." (12) Project "Registration by Name: Austrian Victims of the Holocaust" seeks to contribute to all three of these fields which Niethammer mentions.



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