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Holocaust Memorial Day


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, an event marking instances of genocide and concerted evil that seek to deny a common humanity. Casting even the most cursory glance around, then focusing closer to home, it’s clear that some never learn the lessons this day delivers. These relate not only to the terrible sufferings of others, but also our own capacities for bigotry, hatred and violence.   So apart from going to Mass, the best way I can think of to mark this day is to post this translation of a poem by Primo Levi (below) himself a witness to those terrible events. Levi died in 1987. The Italian coroner’s verdict was left open, but the death was very probably suicide. Fellow survivor Elie Wiesel commented that Levi had already died many years before, in Auschwitz.  Of those that also survived, many went on to re-build their lives successfully. Viktor Frankl even founded a new school of psychiatric thought on the basis of his – to us – unimaginably horrific experiences.  Evil may very well be, as Hannah Arendt termed it, ‘banal’. All the more reason then to be on our guard. And to revert to Primo Levi, he left us works of literature that speak to our common humanity and for all humanity as he does here:

Song of Those Who Died in Vain
by Primo Levi
Sit down and bargain
All you like, grizzled old foxes
We’ll wall you up in a splendid palace
With food, wine, good beds and a good fire
Provided that you discuss, negotiate
For our and your children’s lives.
May all the wisdom of the universe
Converge to bless your minds
And guide you in the maze.
But outside in the cold we will be waiting for you,
The army of those who died in vain,
We of the Marne, of Montecassino,
Treblinka, Dresden and Hiroshima,
And with us will be
The leprous and the people with trachoma,
The Disappeared Ones of Buenos Aires,
Dead Cambodians and dying Ethiopians,
The Prague negotiators,
The bled-dry of Calcutta
The innocents slaughtered in Bologna.
Heaven help you if you come out disagreeing:
You’ll be clutched tight in our embrace.
We are invincible because we are the conquered,
Invulnerable because already dead;
We laugh at your missiles.
Sit down and bargain
Until your tongues are dry.
If the havoc and shame continue
We’ll drown you in our putrefaction.

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