Of Levity and Sorrow
By Xinyi Li
Duluth, GA


“He shouts play sweeter death's music
death comes as a master from Germany
he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke
you shall climb to the sky
then you'll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there”

Paul Celan, “Fugue of Death”

As Louis Bannet watched his fellow prisoners in Birkenau march to the gas chambers, he played Bach in the camp orchestra. The solemn stomps of the doomed procession were overshadowed by cheerful melodies; the camp sounded not of death but of exuberance, of lightness. The towers of smoke and ashes from the crematoria, the hollow silence from the closed lips of the dead – such realities were disguised and replaced by a façade of song, thoughtfully erected and meticulously maintained. Its purpose was to rewrite and veil a rapidly unfolding truth that was more grotesque than grand, more farcical than inspiring. And why not? Similar strategy had succeeded earlier in deceiving the Red Cross who upon examination of an artificially constructed model proclaimed the concentration camps of the Reich suitable and humane. The world's worst atrocities call for belief in even the most foolish alternatives.

No horror is more abject than genocide; its brutality is unmatched among the various inhumanities humans so often inflict upon one another. The thought behind genocide is neither passionate nor excusable; it is systematic, cold destruction planned out through reason and decision, not momentary impulse but calculated conviction. Through various stages from classification to extermination, genocide gains momentum and builds upon itself. Organized groups take advantage of existing sentiments and begin to dehumanize and identify targets for massacre. The blame, therefore, cannot be placed upon individual people or moments but ideological generations, taught either complacence or hate. After all, anti-Semitism had been ingrained in Western European minds for centuries prior to Hitler, and the puzzling acceptance of the Holocaust by the general population can be attributed to both famed German discipline and growing nationalism following the humiliation of World War I. It is not enough for a malicious leader to issue the orders; the people must be willing to follow them, whether ignorantly or knowingly.

The world during World War II was not completely aware of what the death camps contained. But the genocide in Darfur continues with the world today fully aware. Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands in Rwanda as the world stood by. Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields ran with the blood of persecution, yet the world did not intervene. In the countless episodes of genocide that came to pass in the years after the Holocaust, most were widely publicized and covered by Western media. Yet the governments of the powerful democracies took little action, often because their people did not demand action. The distant deaths of unknown victims may evoke some passive sympathy among good-intentioned citizens, but people are ultimately concerned with the familiar and close, not the far and remote. Our society, however sanctimonious in the causes for which we “fight”, often finds it difficult to contribute true, meaningful action.

To prevent further incidents of such utter atrocity, the world must be inspired to care. The teens that turn away during rehashed Holocaust videos must throw down their diversions and muster up the bravery to confront the brutality that was the past and repeats itself in the present. We have forgotten, but we must again remember. It is not enough for the support of charity to be a hollow symbol of prestige – it must be an act of concern, an act of serious meditation and hope. As the pictures of the concentration camps began trickling out after the war, the world looked into the eyes of emaciated skeletons stumbling about and saw in black-and-white the deepest depths of a grotesque despair. We must once again look into that immensely dense void and recognize within us our very own humanity and the countless humanities we have failed to save.

The developed world today floats above reality through opiates of celebrity and pop culture. Are these escapist diversions so different from the cheerful music that played in Auschwitz? Just as prisoners’ last steps were overridden by the ba-dum-doop-dee of a happy melody, a similar world to theirs outside of immediate Western geopolitical concerns unfolds and rests unheard under the trampling horde of news stories about this musician or that actress. The false songs of the Holocaust were ineffective; prisoners knew that the music was a serenade to death, not joy. But the things that divert us from more pressing concerns today are unintentionally effective; the current generation of youth is often ignorant and apathetic, cradled by its limited sense of the world to the extent that any distant event may as well not exist.

As time waltzes past the long days of bloodshed that unfolded under Hitler, the Holocaust itself becomes not only spatially distant but temporally as well. Our world is near that fragile moment when all memories of those dark times will have passed away. The voices of survivors today are immeasurably valuable and must be retained in some manner for future generations to hear and cry for. There are few experiences more touching than listening to a survivor speak, nothing more uplifting than the smile of someone who has passed through the gates of death. The seeming perpetuity of the psychology of genocide makes it necessary for the world to ensure that mere ideologies do not once again turn living, breathing, loving humans against their fellow beings. No code of morality espouses mass murder; no man can look upon senseless slaughter as valid. Darkness may reside within people, but we must ensure that such darkness is suppressed and transformed into compassion lest it ferment into a fury of bloodshed.

Man’s capacity to overcome his cruelest memories is a testament to the spirit of humanity. Yet, simultaneously, it is striking how man can so easily forget his cruelest actions. Our world today is startlingly indifferent to anything but the immediate present. Let us change that, through a poem or a song or a cry of protest, but never let us fall to the lure of some saccharine lullaby and forget the atrocities only we can prevent.



Stanton, Gregory H. "The Eight Stages of Genocide." Genocide Watch. Genocide Watch. 30 Apr. 2007 <http://www.genocidewatch.org/eightstages.htm>.
Vanderwerff, Hans. "Bach in Auschwitz and Birkenau." The Holocaust: Lest We Forget. 6 Aug. 2006. 22 Apr. 2007 <http://www.cympm.com/orkest.html>.


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