‘The truth’, alternative facts and remembrance

I recently finished Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, one of a few books I’ve read that I would say deserve to be termed ‘essential’ – certainly none I’ve read deserves the title more. It collects a large number of remarkably powerful testimonies from people witness to the appalling tragedy of Chernobyl and its dreadful and ongoing aftermath. It is a harrowing read – some passages almost unbearably so – but it is also compelling. The witnesses are, by turns, moving, sentimental, desperate, appalled, angry, philosophical and funny. But what stands out, above all, is the utter determination of Chernobyl’s damaged and grieving survivors to tell their story, in the face of lies, distortion and indifference. It is an important read for any politician who believes the facts do not matter or that they have a right to ‘control’ the reality in which their citizens live.

I was reminded as I read of a passage in one of Primo Levi’s books where he describes how camp guards at Auschwitz would taunt prisoners by telling them that even if they survived to tell their stories no-one would ever believe them (I can’t, I’m afraid, recall which book). A recurring nightmare of many who did survive the Holocaust was of relating what had happened and not being believed. Their suffering was appalling, but it was made immeasurably worse by the prospect of the reality of their suffering being denied or excised from history. That is why the annual UN International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, marked today (on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz), is so important. It is an affirmation of a commitment both to remembering one of history’s most dreadful crimes and to the value of education in overcoming divisions, combating racism and defending the truth against those who choose to distort it. In the era of post-truth politics, ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and fake politicians, this commitment has never been more important.

When Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper published its now notorious frontpage headlined ‘The truth’ in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster it, the impact on survivors and the families of the victims was enormous. I refuse to believe that the decision of the newspaper’s odious editor was anything other than a calculated act of distortion. The headline must have had, for him, a delicious irony, as he personally insisted on presenting a litany of inhuman crimes, alleged to have been committed by the victims, without a shred of evidence, in contradiction of almost all eye-witness testimony. This man’s actions added significantly to the burden of guilt carried by survivors for more than a quarter of a century, while the families of the victims, locked in a seemingly endless fight for justice, were driven by the fear that their truth, the real story of what happened to their loved ones that day, would be erased from history. When justice campaigner and mother of one of the victims Margaret Aspinall stood on the steps of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall shortly after the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was published, she told the survivors, finally, to ‘forgive yourselves’. People in the crowd wept.

One of the witnesses in Svetlana Alexievich’s book wonders ‘whether it’s better to remember or forget’. The struggle to tell the truth can be exhausting and demoralising when you feel yourselves to be so small, and the forces of distortion are so very great and all-pervasive. And there are other personal costs too, not least the uncomprehending contempt of those who saw the victims as scroungers in search of ‘Chernobyl benefits’. I think we owe the author a huge debt of gratitude for collecting these untold stories and for ensuring that these forgotten people have a voice. Her book should be on every politician’s reading list. It is important that they understand the consequences of what Orwell termed ‘reality control’. When politicians offer their citizens an ‘alternative’ truth, the ‘truth’ they want them to invest in for own reasons (and there can be no good reasons here), it is a first step on a very dark road, along which people are dehumanised, victims blamed, rights overlooked and dignity overridden. History shows us where this road leads. This is why it is so important that we continue to remember, to recognise that telling the truth can be a powerfully defiant and profoundly political act. It is also a reminder, as one Holocaust survivor said this week, that civilization is ‘veneer-thin’. It needs constant care and reinvestment. By committing to truth, justice and remembrance we not only assert the value of human dignity and civilisation, we make a statement of confidence in people and the future as well.

The quiet resistance

This is an interview I did with Holocaust survivor and anti-fascism campaigner Esther Brunstein back in 2004. Esther talks movingly about surviving the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, and about how learning became both an expression of humanity and an act of resistence. It was originally published in Adults Learning.

While the starving Jews of the Warsaw ghetto uprising resisted the might of the German army for four weeks in 1943, the Jews of Lodz, without weapons or contact with the outside world, demonstrated their resistance in another way. Esther Brunstein, who was 11 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, describes a man-made hell in which every attempt to learn, to be human, was a profound act of resistance.

In the face of extreme starvation, disease and the constant fear of violent death, people manage not only to survive, but also to create, to think, to appreciate art, to learn. Ringed by barbed wire and under the constant watch of German marksmen, the Jews of the Lodz ghetto read poetry, held lectures, gave theatrical performances, even formed choirs. In this way, Esther Brunstein says, she and the other inhabitants of the ghetto, while they lived, managed to retain ‘some semblance of human dignity’, to believe ‘that some things mattered’.

The story of her survival begins with an early childhood spent ‘in a household of ideals’. Her parents were active members of the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement. ‘I was imbued with it,’ she says, ‘What was made very important to us in the ghetto was to observe, take note, but also, if you were to survive, not to lose your sense of humanity. The importance of surviving was to tell the tale. And, you know, that becomes a mission.’

The Bundist school she attended gave her a ‘strong sense of what was just’ which she carried with her into the ghetto. ‘Before the War, I was acutely aware that there was a hostile environment around me. I felt, as a child, the hostility, the anti-Semitism. When, crying, I questioned my family about it, they said, “These people are not educated, it’s not you personally”. We were fighting for a better world and we hoped that this sort of thing would be eradicated. These were the answers we were given and I’m grateful to this day that I wasn’t imbued with any hatred. Belonging to something that was really idealistic made me, as a child, feel safe and protected. Even if the environment is not friendly, one can feel secure where there is love and understanding and where school actually teaches you the same. This was the kind of air I breathed. It felt good.’

Esther was 11 years old, her two older brothers, Peretz and David, 15 and 18 respectively, at the outbreak of war in 1939. ‘From the beginning of 1939, I remember talk about the imminence of war. I was on school holiday, a camping holiday, when, on the 1st of September, war was finally declared. We were very frightened. Although news about Nazi Germany was everywhere and we knew about Kristallnacht, somehow, we thought, deep down, they are a civilised nation, not to be so scared, it’s going to be a Blitzkrieg, it’s going to be over soon.’ Seven days after the outbreak of hostilities, Lodz was occupied by the Germans. ‘Immediately, life changed. Chaos. Fear. Fear to go out in the streets. Suddenly, you knew you were not protected under the law, at all. If you walked in the street and they felt like beating you up, they did. Somebody’s father was beaten up, badly, because he did not step down onto the road as a German soldier approached.

‘Soon, we were forced to wear the yellow star with the word ‘Jude’. That, as a child, caused me a lot of upset. I shed a lot of tears. I didn’t want to go out. I refused. I hated to be stared at, to look different. I suppose that’s how children are. But children grow up fast under circumstances like that. I met up with a few friends. We all agreed that we had nothing to be ashamed of. It was the Germans who should be ashamed for introducing a nasty, medieval custom. We knew that these things had existed before. We had learned that. We decided we had to walk with our heads held high. Wearing the star was just a detail that you had to get used to.’

Shortly after the German occupation began, Esther’s uncle – another Bundist activist – was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured in a prison outside Lodz and shot. Her elder brother fled to Soviet-occupied Polish territory. Her father too was advised to leave for a place where he was not well known. ‘My father left on the 31st of December, another date I can never forget,’ Esther says, ‘So it was just my mother, my brother Peretz, who also survived, and myself who were left in Lodz, but, of course, it was going to be a Blitzkrieg, so we would see each other again pretty soon. Not long after we had to leave our own apartment because it was outside the designated area for the future ghetto’.

Poles were ordered to leave the 4.3 square kilometre territory proposed for the ghetto and Jews from across the city were forced to abandon their homes and most of their possessions, to move into the small area, which, at the beginning, contained in the region of 180,000 people. The area was officially sealed on May 1. ‘The ghetto, almost from the start, was hell, lack of food, the worst possible hygiene conditions, lack of fuel, but most important, starvation, which reached such proportions, unimaginable for normal people. Then, some kind of normalcy was brought into the ghetto by making it almost like a labour camp. The Lodz ghetto is known for that. All kinds of factories were built and machinery brought in. The man in charge said to the Germans that he could make it a real working place, which would be useful for them. And it was. Everything was produced in the ghetto, even luxury goods that were shipped to Germany. Other things were shipped to the Russian front. From 1941 onwards, we were making everything, uniforms, carpets, blankets, shoes, underwear.

‘For a while, school reopened in the ghetto, though it didn’t last long. But even then it was important for us. It also meant a little soup during the day. The few teachers that were left were absolutely wonderful. When I think of them now; idealistic people. They did everything to keep up our morale. We were sitting in the classroom in winter with blue hands from cold and food, just a little watery soup, and we were trying to learn. They even had reports. It didn’t last long. Just one miserable year. Then the schools were closed.

‘Even then, we started meeting in homes. Five children with an older friend. It was safer and though we wouldn’t have proper lessons, we would do a lot of reading, discussing and, sometimes, even producing a little written work about what we had read. And there were books. When we were herded into the ghetto, we brought books with us. We even had a lending library. I remember that we were reading, in Yiddish and Polish, Les Miserables. Somehow we still managed to feel sorry for Jean Valjean and Cosette. That helped to keep our sanity. But, also, I read with other friends, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. It was a fantasy world. There was another world outside and that was important to know because someday we would all be part of a normal world. We had to believe that.’

As conditions in the ghetto worsened, children, who had been put to work in the factories, began to suffer illness and malnutrition. ‘People stopped walking, physically, stopped walking,’ Esther says, ‘Some kind of pill was brought in which helped, but typhus was rampant, TB, dysentery, coupled with dreadful hygienic conditions and hardly any medication, people were just dying in masses. We were losing friends, school friends, cousins. Then the deportations started. They called it “resettlement”. Nobody wanted to go. After two or three years under Nazi rule you just knew instinctively that it bode no good, but no imagination could manufacture what was actually happening. A very big deportation took place at the beginning of ’42. It was to a camp called Chelmno. Not one person ever survived. There was no camp. It was just total deception. They died in the trucks. The gas was put through into the packed carriages. Chelmno was just a place that you entered dead.’

Throughout this time, amid sickness, starvation and death, political groupings continued to meet. ‘They couldn’t do much politically’, Esther says, ‘but it was important to affirm that your ideals weren’t dead in spite of what was happening. One had to preserve one’s sanity and try to survive. There was a drama group that operated in the ghetto, there was an orchestra, people were painting underground and exhibiting. Lectures were held on every possible subject, even choirs were formed. It’s true that someone might have been there one week and then, the next week, he or she wouldn’t be. But it was so important to have this. I was in a group of five. Like we have book clubs here now, we had book circles, except that we were 11, 12 and 13 years old. We would read and if there weren’t enough books to go around, you would read together with a friend, discuss next week what you read and have an older friend lead the group. That is among my good, positive memories. And to this day I feel a sense of pride that we managed to do it.

‘People’s kitchens sprang up in summer 1940, and they became a meeting place. We often wondered whether the world was at all interested in what was happening to us, all this inhumanity. The Gestapo would come into the ghetto sometimes. People were betrayed. They were beaten and tortured. I saw babies being thrown out of hospital windows onto trucks. That was our normal existence, every day fear, every day hope. People risked their lives by listening to the radio. The BBC World Service was the source of all information. But in 1942-43 it seemed that nothing would ever break the German might. They were so powerful and the atrocities they carried out were so unbelievable. The deportations continued. The worst from Lodz was around August, September 1942, when we lost about 20,000 people. When people did not volunteer, the Germans actually came into the ghetto with trucks and with vicious dogs, going from courtyard to courtyard and rounding everybody up and selecting: those on the truck, those stay behind. Those on the truck went to Chelmno. Not one person survived.

‘But even after that, all the activities resumed, we even created humour out of the intolerable conditions. This was all a means of surviving. It’s hard for people to behave in a normal way when circumstances are not normal. When people are hungry, it does not bring out noble feelings. But at the same time, there were fantastic acts of idealism. I was ill. My legs were very swollen and I couldn’t go to work. If you didn’t go to work you didn’t get your midday soup. But a friend of mine worked in the same place as I did. The girls and boys each gave a couple of spoonfuls of watery soup to me. And every day my friend would arrive with his little tin, which everyone wore in the ghetto. That was a big thing. The enormity of it is hard to appreciate when you have a full tummy.

‘Even in that place, youngsters would meet in the afternoon, in one big room and have a little bit of education. We had, in this place, a teacher who had taught us in the beginning when the school was still open. And he would come, to my particular working place, and we would read and concentrate also on some poetry, learn it by heart if possible, recite it, which was important even if you were hungry. What you learned you learned well. It was important. You couldn’t have formal lessons because you had no books, no classrooms. But one had to keep one’s brain as alert as possible, so it was not fully taken up by this gnawing pain of hunger. It wasn’t on a large scale, but it acquired a name and the name was ‘little school’. It was only for a couple of hours. But a couple of hours were a respite from everything else. In most households, there was death and sickness and hunger and cold, and here we had a couple of hours with others and with an adult, a teacher, talking about things that were totally unconnected with what we were going through, trying to be normal children for a couple of hours.’

Despite the strict prohibition on the use of radios, news reached the Jews of Lodz of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. The emaciated, starved Jews of Warsaw resisted the German army for four weeks, before their eventual capitulation and the final liquidation of the ghetto. ‘When the news reached us of the Warsaw uprising,’ Esther says, ‘I remember, how we rejoiced. We couldn’t do it in Lodz because we just didn’t have contact with a single person outside. But to live through one day under those conditions and to retain a sense of human dignity is a great act of resistance and it has to be understood and taken seriously. By the skin of our teeth we held on to that, trying hard not to become totally demoralised, when nothing matters. To the last minute it mattered to us to remain human and humane. The quiet resistance, this was our resistance. If an uprising could have taken place in our ghetto, it would have, but with the ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and German posts every few yards, it was not possible.’

The final liquidation of the Lodz ghetto took place in 1944. Though the Germans were losing the war, their plan to exterminate the remnants of European Jewry continued apace. The remaining Jews were told to prepare for ‘resettlement’, before being rounded up for the final transports. ‘There was no more selection – we were all herded into cattle trucks. There could have been as many as 50-100 people in each truck. We didn’t know where we were going. We were shoved into the trucks very forcefully, very frighteningly. I don’t know how long the journey lasted. It could have been 24, 48 hours. We finally reached our destination. The doors were thrown open. There were many dead in the carriage. They were just thrown out. We didn’t know where we had come to, but, of course, it was Auschwitz. I can only describe it as something like a lunatic asylum. We could see shaven heads, skeletal creatures. We were told to form rows of five, men on one side, women and children on the other. We were pushed to the selection point and there was Dr Mengele, selecting. It was the movement of a thumb that determined whether you lived for a little longer or you died within hours.’

Esther’s mother was among those who did not pass selection for life. ‘It has left me with a feeling of madness, a feeling that I have been in a world that got unhinged. I can’t tell you how long I was there for, it could have been two weeks, it could have been six. We went through the process of being shaved, the indignity of that. Even then, as a girl of 16, I was aware of this indignity. I don’t know how it happened, but I was sent from Auschwitz to a labour camp and that lasted until January when we were marched to Belsen, which is where I was liberated. I don’t remember the day of liberation, because I had typhus, I was given up for dead, but here I am. I was totally unconscious. I didn’t awaken until four days after liberation.’

Even in the labour camp, located near Hanover, Esther’s sense of humanity did not desert her. In their barracks, she says, workers would meet and recite poetry, sing ‘songs of freedom’. After liberation, Esther was sent to Sweden, along with many other refugees, later being reunited with her brother in Britain in 1945. She worked for a time as a domestic before becoming an actress in the Yiddish Theatre, in the east end of London. Her husband, Stanislaw Brunstein, who fought with the Polish army attached to the British, also worked for the theatre, as an artist and set designer. Esther now writes and gives talks on her experiences, most often to children and young adults. ‘The most important message I try to get across to them is not to be indifferent bystanders in the face of injustice, but to speak up and make your point.’