A few years ago, I visited my brother, who at the time was living in Poland.
While I was there, we took a trip to Auschwitz.
Many of you will have made a similar journey. There’s no point trying to convey the feelings of being in a place that experienced so much absolute horror. My skills as a writer fail to come even close. If you’ve been you will understand, if you haven’t, you won’t. What struck me most was that walking around the grounds where the worst of humanity was made manifest was the scale. I struggled to comprehend the place. I wanted to have a visceral reaction but it was as though it was too big for me to react.
Alan Bennett borrows from Wittgenstein to address this very issue in his play The History Boys – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. It felt like there was nothing to say. It was shortly before we left that I found an expression of the horror inside Auschwitz that allowed me to have an emotional response. A spiral sculptural piece, containing the writings of Primo Levi, stood in a room. It was this piece of art that finally moved me, deeply and profoundly, and allowed me to react to what I had seen.
It was as though it was only through the prism of art that I could understand the scale of what I had witnessed. I was reminded of that moment, one of the most powerful I have ever experienced, earlier this week when I read about the 9/11 Memorial Museum. More than 12 years after the horrifying events that it describes, after countless obstacles, disputes and funding problems, the museum finally opened its doors in New York yesterday. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and the chairman of the 9/11 memorial and museum, said the opening of the museum was “an important day in our city and our country, and, I would argue, the civilized world, where we value each other’s beliefs and rights to express ourselves.” Some feel that opening a museum to commemorate one of the most awful events of recent history is inappropriate.
I would argue that nothing could be more appropriate.
We are living in really difficult times, where fractious elements seek to destroy our shared humanity. Just this week an outfit calling itself Britain First attempted to stir up racial tensions by storming into mosques across Bradford. Those people who did so, brandishing Bibles like they were weapons, are extremists who seek to undo the lessons we’ve learned from the past century of the dangers of fascism. Yes, the 9/11 museum might be a painful reminder to some of a recent past that continues to affect our present. Art reflects humanity, that is what it is for. Sometimes the humanity it reflects is far from our best. But without art of such power, we might forget to learn the lessons that have come from such difficulty. It’s not always easy, but art is often entirely necessary.