Tonight I attended a memorial for Holocaust survivors, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945. The service itself was actually fairly unremarkable, given the tragedy of the events being remembered, and I would almost say my time would have been better spent in silent remembrance for the lives lost than listening to Biblical readings. This would have been the case, in fact, were it not for one exception to this general rule, which has inspired my thought for today.
As part of the memorial, the decision was made to use music and poetry written by Holocaust survivors to bookend the service, which struck me as an inspired decision. It got me thinking; this must be part of what defines the humanity within us, that even in the direst of circumstances, we have the capacity to create something beautiful.
Take, for example, the music of Viktor Ullmann, who was ultimately killed at Auschwitz. Whilst interred at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943 he wrote his String Quartet no 3 Op 46 (via YouTube), which is a hauntingly calamitous piece that puts one in the mind of chaos. And despite that unholy sounding clamour and crashing of the normally soulful strings, it is beautiful in its own way, and certainly representative of the turmoil around him at the time.
Mario Vargas Llosa defines writing in his Letters to a Young Novelist as a means of rebelling against the way things are. That definition can be broadened here, I think, to say that art – whether that be music, painting, or literature – is created as a comment upon contemporary circumstances, and if not always designed to rebel, then at the very least serves as a coping mechanism in the darkest of hours.
This will to create, even in the most horrible of circumstances, amidst the unimaginable pain of the concentration camps, suggests to me that this is a unique part of what makes us who we are, of what makes us human. How easy it would be to give in, to resign oneself to the death that so many friends and family have suffered. But these men and women did not give up, and even created great works through their torment.
Any animal can kill, can cause the most unimaginable suffering, and of course as a species we do it better than any. It is only humans, however, that can take that crippling pain and use it to fuel something beautiful. It is this creative spark that gives us vivacity, that may help us take even the slightest of comfort through the agony. It is this unwillingness to be defeated on all levels that makes the human species such a remarkable one, and I would suggest anyone that hasn’t already should seek out some of the art created within the concentration camps, it is certainly an excellent way of remembering those lost in those tragic years, whom we must never forget.