The task of repairing words, and the world, after the Holocaust

Anti-Semitic sign that reads Juden sind hier unerwunscht (Jews Are Unwanted Here)
Anti-Semitic sign that reads Juden sind hier unerwunscht (Jews Are Unwanted Here)
27 January is Holocaust Remembrance Day, world-wide. Here is a talk given at Sydney Jewish Museum on 28 January. The task for my generation — the last that will know the survivors of the Holocaust personally — is to hold “that, which happened” in our hearts, not simply as an historical event, but as an eternal caution against hate and prejudice, writes Simon Tedeschi.

This is a slightly edited version of a speech delivered at the Sydney Jewish Museum for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Sunday, 28 January 2024.

Let me begin by addressing the survivors directly. Your lives are why we are here today. You are emblematic of the Jewish struggle for nationhood, for acceptance, for peace. You are living, breathing repositories of memory and strength. You are here as evidence of the capacity of humankind to survive and thrive in spite of horror. You are more than history — you are living history that continues into the present. You are the rationale for why we even have a museum, a building whose role is not just to remember but to bear witness to what poet and survivor Paul Celan called in German dass, was geschah, or “that, which happened”.

I come today as a secular Jew who, like so many of you, is here only by virtue of the miraculous survival of my relatives: a series of half chances, quick thinking, good choices, practicality, and raw luck. I come as the descendant of those who were brutalised, tortured, and killed in Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald. I am here as a man who has been inspirited from birth with the responsibility, whether I wanted it or not, to bear witness. I come here as a human being with as many foibles as anyone else, a man with no special claims to wisdom.

I also come as someone who, though connected to those who survived and many who did not, is nevertheless blessed to live in a country that — though it has its own dark history — is as good as any that my family could have imagined. I have enjoyed the fruits of a life that was denied my grandparents. I am, as such, only able to undertake the feeblest translation of what they endured.

To try and understand a fellow human being is hard enough; to attempt wrap one’s imagination around what we call the Shoah is impossible. For the events of 1939–1945 persistently defy logic, they elude meaning. It will not do to reduce the Shoah to “the evil that men do” or “man’s inhumanity to man” — although it certainly was both of those things. The Shoah was also absence. It was the groaning of the void.

This is why Celan used the term dass, was geschah, “that, which happened” — what we today call the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe is a black hole around which people like me, who have lived with its third-hand repercussions our entire lives, can only float in space, aghast in horror at our blank incomprehension, unable fully to countenance the meaning of what is written or heard in testimony, but who are nevertheless emboldened by the need to remain eternally vigilant against what ordinary men and women can do to each other in the name of nationhood, racial purity, power, and the state.

To try to express the meaning of this level of trauma is necessarily an act of translation — which is, as Paul Celan insisted (who was himself not only a poet but a translator), impossible in anything other than one’s mother tongue. But when it comes to the sheer depravity and horror of the Shoah, even one’s mother tongue proves woefully inadequate.

Having said all this, I know that, for survivors and because of survivors, having endured what no human being should have to endure, I am set free. But what is this freedom, and what does it require of us to hold onto — both for ourselves and for others? What responsibilities are incumbent upon us as members of the human community, those of us who did not endure the horrors of the camps, to tell the truth and stand resolutely against violence, denial, and lies?

The fragility of freedom

There is a very old joke that goes like this: a man asks his rabbi, “Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi shrugs his shoulders and replies, “Why not?” But as is often the case with jokes, what lingers behind is a matter of deadly seriousness. How to speak of what cannot be spoken? How to wrestle with the fragility of freedom when words are such frail semblances of experience — and when, as every Jew knows, today more than any time since the Holocaust, our words and sentences can be turned against human beings in ingenious ways?

When I began gathering my thoughts for this occasion, my mind went immediately to a story I read about the Jewish-Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian, born Iosif Mendel Hechter. For me, it encapsulates not only the Jewish experience, but the spirit of true resistance.

Sebastian was the author of a remarkable novel called For Two Thousand Years. When it was about to be published in 1934 — at a time antisemitism was spreading like cyanide through Romanian society — Sebastian asked his friend, the journalist and philosopher Nae Ionescu, to write the foreword. Here is some of what Ionescu wrote:

It is an assimilationist illusion; it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian … Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No! You are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

It is what Sebastian did in response that I have never forgotten, for I believe it is emblematic of what humanity can be. Rather than omit his friend’s hateful phrases, he decided to publish the book in toto, with Ionescu’s foreword wholly intact, word for word. Because he did so, Sebastian was attacked from both the left and the right: from his Zionist compatriots who accused him of being a self-hating Jew, and from the fascists who accused him of humiliating the great Romanian cultural figure.

But in the end, it was Sebastian, with the self-mastery of a sage, who had the last word. By bearing witness to Ionescu, by letting Ionescu’s hateful words ring in the air, Sebastian did what only a poet can: he allowed these words, ugly ones, murderous ones, to reveal themselves in their naked entirety, and thereby showed himself to be a human being of courage and fortitude even as he exposed Ionescu’s lack of humanity. Sebastian did not debase himself. He did not return fire. He did not argue back or try to score points. He did not dignify Ionescu with any response at all. By exposing Ionescu’s ignorant, dangerous words, by subjecting them to public scrutiny, Sebastian erected a great rhetorical mirror which revealed Ionescu for what he was: a man who, despite the great power of his mind, was not brave enough to combat the hatred that festered within his own heart.

Here we are again today. Yet again we Jews are exposed to words that seek to dismember and destroy; to people whose claims to altruism are undermined by the sportive nature of their activism; to a culture in which so much of what goes by the name “activism” amounts to a thinly veiled narcissism. Where once a loudspeaker sufficed, today we have the megaphone of social media to satisfy our most elemental desires to belong, to win, to dominate, to “own” — and at such times, the demons of dass, was geschah haunt us, reminding us that civilisation is tenuous, fragile, a delicate scrim.

And yet it is for this very reason that we must speak out, boldly and incessantly. We must, even when we feel weakest, counter the imprecisions and defacements of language. But we must do so in the way Mihail Sebastian demonstrated — with humanity as our compass, for that is how fragile freedom is.

We must avoid all reactionary notions of collective guilt and sins of the forefathers, all inviolable categories of experience, all mental shortcuts. We must show ourselves worthy heirs of the biblical exegeses undertaken by Rabbis for thousands of years, with their humble attentiveness to the way words run and the mysteries words bear along with them. We must be better than those who seek to poison the well of language.

We must ensure that we do honour to the survivors of the Shoah, not only by standing up against calumny and carnage, but by remembering that we are a people who, having been colonised, brutalised, and denied for centuries, have as much right to safety, to a homeland, and to freedom from persecution, as anyone else.

Repairing the world

In a world in which the need to take sides is presented as a moral imperative, the side I choose is that of Maimonides when he comments on a passage from Deuteronomy: “Observe [these instructions] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people’.” The Jewish sage then writes:

If no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is … that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

Or of Rabbi Sherwin Wine: “The freedom and dignity of the Jewish people must go hand in hand with the freedom and dignity of every human being.” Or of the great humanist Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

Antisemitism is never ultimately about Jews. It is about a profound human failure to accept the fact that we are diverse and must create space for diversity if we are to preserve our humanity.

These ideas are, for me, the beating heart of Judaism in the twenty-first century, and can be subsumed under the words tikkun ‘ôlam — the task of repairing the world. And in many ways, the fragmented world that the twentieth century has bestowed on us requires both Jews and gentiles, of all colours and ethnicities, as countrymen in a world of individuals, even at the moments of the greatest peril, to stand at the forefront of efforts to restore human dignity to all peoples, and to fight against the unthinkingness of the crowd, which as Elias Canetti has written, remains:

the same everywhere, in all periods and cultures … once in being, it spreads with the utmost violence. Few can resist its contagion; it always wants to go on growing and there are no inherent limits to its growth.

Holding fast to humility

So I return to the idea of the question which, even if it is a punchline, is not really a joke at all. For what is a question but an expression of openness, of receptiveness, of humility? For those who are so certain of their opinion, who see the world starkly in terms of black and white, who have reduced all aspects of human behaviour to inviolable categories, and who thereby become like those they hate, the best counter to this impingement on freedom — after all, the hatred of any peoples, whether Jews or not, always begins with words — is another question, a welcoming of open-endedness, of discovery, of admitting that one does not know.

I think here of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that knowledge is not a destination to be reached but a journey to be taken, a series of infinitely recurring circles. Or, as Tracy K. Smith has written most aptly of the cultural moment in which we find ourselves:

I’m convinced that one of the only defences against the degradations of our market-driven culture is to cleave to language that fosters humility, awareness of complexity, commitment to the lives of others and a resistance to the overly easy and the patently false.

That, for me, is what is meant by freedom.

And so, as the grandson of those who survived and the descendant of fifteen who did not, I believe it remains for us to think not just a month into the future, but six months, six years, sixty years. It remains for us, and especially my generation — the last that will know the survivors of the Shoah personally — to continue to hold “that, which happened” in our hearts, not simply as an historical event, but as an eternal caution against hate and prejudice, as an antidote to any and all hierarchies, as witness to the incomparable beauty of tolerance, humility, and peace, as a reminder of “the other” who lies deeply embedded within ourselves.

What happened to the Jews of Europe only eighty years ago is something that we must remain guardians against and witnesses to — so fragile is our freedom that we must speak the truth aloud whenever and however we can, with conviction and courage.

Simon Tedeschi is an acclaimed concert pianist and writer. His first book, Fugitive, was shortlisted both for the Judith Wright Calanthe Award at the Queensland Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. In 2022, he was named the winner of the Australian Book Review’s Calibre Prize.


Hungarian Jews
Hungarian Jews arrested and taken away to Auschwitz.


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