The Irish Times, January 16, 2022
Future generations must be reminded of what is done in the name of hate
The first-time visitor to Auschwitz in Poland is often surprised by the richness of the natural surroundings – golden wheat fields and village gardens full of flowers. This colourful scene contrasts with the black-and-white images we have of barbed wire, gaunt faces and stick-like limbs. Here 1.1 million people spent their last wretched days before being shot or gassed.
Everything at Auschwitz has been preserved as a museum to the Holocaust, including the gas chamber, not much bigger than a concrete two-car garage.
Nobody lingers here for more than a few seconds. The horror has a paralysing effect on the mind. We can only find meaning in details.
The most lasting memory I took away from a visit in 1989 is of the tangled mass of spectacles, piled up in a building outside the perimeter. I could imagine the owners reading books and newspapers, doing accounts, taking their eyeglasses off at night to rub tired eyes. Seeing the personal belongings of the victims, the spectacles, the shoes, the suitcases, one perceives the Holocaust not as an abstract thing but as a loss of individual lives.
In my years as a correspondent it is such items that often define tragedies: a bridal veil abandoned on a kitchen floor in Qasr-i-Sharin in Iran after invasion by Iraqi troops, a broken statue of the Virgin Mary in a ransacked East Timor house, a book by Maeve Binchy trampled by police on the floor of Winnie Mandela’s house in Brandfort, a briefcase protruding from the rubble of 9/11 in New York, a woman’s shoe lying sideways on the road after an explosion in Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
Stalin said that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. In the Holocaust, six million people, mostly Jews but also Poles, Romani and Red Army prisoners, were murdered.
Among them were the many “single deaths” of the relatives of Oliver Sears, the London-born and Dublin-based art dealer who founded Holocaust Awareness Ireland and who is staging an exhibition in Dublin Castle of his family mementos, photographs and documents called The Objects of Love.
This poignant yet simple display contains everyday items such as a concert ticket, a monogrammed powder compact and a ring.
The exhibition also reminds us of the consequences of ignoring the voices of hatred in today’s world
Among dozens of family snapshots one sees his mother Monika, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, playing as a little child with a huge white bow in her hair, and adults posing stiffly for family gatherings, unaware that they are marked for murder on an industrial scale. A later passport photograph on forged identity papers shows his grandmother Kryszia, posing with freshly dyed blond hair to make her look Aryan. “How to measure the fear and desperation in those eyes,” asks Oliver, “hiding from a regime programmed to turn you, your family and your culture into ash.”
In his story of one Jewish family before, during and after the Holocaust and in his personal engagement with the past, Oliver transforms statistics into a defiant expression of love, giving dignity to those who would otherwise be forgotten.
The exhibition also reminds us of the consequences of ignoring the voices of hatred in today’s world, and that future generations must be reminded what is done in the name of hate.
Anyone growing up in Northern Ireland, as I did, knows too well of the consequences of hatred. Three thousand five hundred people died in the Troubles. Each death caused anguish and tore apart families. The consequences of the Holocaust on the individual victims, however, is almost unimaginable. A powerful army was deployed to wipe out the Jewish race in Europe. It is as if the population of the island of Ireland was rounded up from every city, town and village and shot beside burial pits or forced naked into death chambers filled with Zyklon B gas.
When addressing an audience of young people in Derry not long ago, Oliver pointed out that the deaths in the Troubles were equivalent to an afternoon’s work at Auschwitz, where the killing went on for five years.
One day in 1990, Oliver and his mother Monika went to Auschwitz and walked through the gates. Here (and in Treblinka) his grandfather Schloyme lost his parents and brother, as well as 20 aunts and uncles and all their families. It was a moment Oliver found almost impossible to describe. They felt grief, and anger, he recalled, but also the triumph of life and love.
The exhibition The Objects of Love continues in the Bedford Hall in Dublin Castle until January 28th