‘The dumb go down in history and disappear’ wrote Tony Harrison in ‘National Trust‘.
Watching ‘The Eichmann Show’ on TV last week, what appalled me was to learn of a collective suppression of memory, that there could be more than one kind of Holocaust denial, and that the survivors could be surrounded by a strange conspiracy of silence in the heart of their dreamed-for homeland. The dreadful imagery of what the ‘Final Solution’ actually meant, over and over and over, was shockingly and distressingly familiar. In the late 1950’s as a teenager I’d read books like ‘The scourge of the swastika,’ and watched the BBC’s ‘World at war’ , week after week, for half a year, finally being confronted by the nightmare footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops. And my father very quietly saying his brother Alec had been there. He didn’t say anything else. The grown-ups I knew, whether they’d been in the Forces or not, simply didn’t talk about the war. But maybe that’s when I began to realise that was why my Uncle Alec didn’t talk at all, why he sat wrapped in a dark and unnerving silence. Years later I wrote a poem that tried to make some sense of that silence. And to remind myself about why we have a responsiblity never to be silent, never to forget.
Stoney Lane 1946
Sundays we would walk down Stoney Lane,
hedged with stunted hawthorn, elderberry
laced with rusted wire, bits of scavenged plank;
in the foundry slag that paved the track
I’d pick out lucky stones: sand-clots fused to twists
of opaque glass, marblings of turquoise,
jade and tourmaline, glossy and random as flints.
The lane ran out in cinders and red ash
at the crossing gate where we would stand,
listen to the humming tracks, see the bright rails
bounce and shiver, the gravel shift, before
the boarded trucks came shuddering past.
Then, mysteriously, the white gates opened
a way across the line and under a great stone arch.
Beyond, the land fell steeply down, then up the moor,
the sky as blue as steelworks glass. Grandma’s house
was in the banking’s shadow, sunless and cold;
dark inside, the horsehair sofa hard and black.
In the leaded range, a fire that smouldered
even on a summer’s day. My grandma at the sink;
my uncle silent in the father’s chair.
Except for small rituals with tobacco tin and Rizlas,
a stained pot of tea, he scarcely ever moved.
His eyes were full of of ghosts: north Africa to Belsen.
A man who never spoke, who knew too much
for which a language had not yet been forged;
ash, and ragged things caught on the wire.
Aged three, I got lucky stones from furnace fire.
Bergen-Belsen was the only concentration camp taken by the British and the soldiers were unprepared for what they found there. In fact most of the details did not appear in the media until a couple of days after the liberation when the first medical team arrived. Mass graves were dug to hold up to 5,000 corpses at a time.
The British Army rabbi, Leslie H. Hardman says kaddish at one of the graves
The mass evacuation of the camp began on 21 April. Prisoners with any hope of survival were moved to an emergency hospital. British medical students responded to an appeal from the Ministry of Health to go to Germany and help in the treatment of prisoners. Photographs and a film taken at the camp and published in the media brought home the full horror of life in Belsen. German civilians living near to the camp were taken to see what had gone on inside. The last hut in the camp was burned to the ground on 21 May 1945. Today the camp is a landscaped park.