Tomorrow will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of a devastating world conflict whose repercussions the European continent still feels to this day. Few relics have come to symbolise the horror of war and the Nazi Holocaust as much as the infamous wrought iron panel overlooking the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp.
The gate itself was built by Polish political prisoners who arrived at the concentration camp at the end of 1940 and the start of 1941. When the SS ordered them to make the panel, these prisoners showed incredible courage: they reversed the letter “B” in the ignominious “Arbeit macht frei”.
This act is not to be relegated to the rank of anecdote. On the contrary, it symbolises an act of resistance against the human dignity-crushing machine that was Auschwitz. For that was the primary purpose of the death camp, to remove all human dignity from the prisoners and then destroy them.
To turn the letter “B” upside down meant to overcome fear – in an act of defiance of the daily humiliations, beatings, hatred and murder they were forced to witness. Through their courage, these prisoners also showed the world the inhuman logic that laid the foundations of National Socialist tyranny.
The inverted “B” symbolises all this. Today, it questions our duty to remember. For we must not forget or fall into indifference. But how?
This year’s commemorations cannot take place as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shame, because for many ageing survivors, this anniversary could have been the last opportunity to take part in the commemoration ceremonies.
And at a time when remembrance should not be synonymous with retrospection but rather represent an exercise in reflection on the present and the future, they would have sent important signals in a political context that sees the resurgence of nationalism in Europe.
But let us go further.
The health crisis also forces us to ask ourselves a central question that has begun to emerge in recent years: how can we keep the memory alive while the circle of survivors is getting smaller and smaller? And by extension, what does this mean for our understanding of democracy? How can this memory contribute to perpetuating the discussion about the democratic necessity of our societies?
For this is precisely what we have to keep doing: questioning ourselves.
This is what remembering means. This is what fighting indifference means.
In this democratic exercise, the inverted “B” helps enormously. It sends a message that transcends generations, geographical boundaries and various crises. It is the prisoners who ask us not to remain indifferent in the face of persecution and discrimination. This text hopes to contribute a little to transmitting their message.
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]