Memory, History, Cycles

Two things have come up in the news this week, which almost tie together.

A first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works has been found in a french library. A book printed in 1623, seven years after his death, has been sitting for 200 years in a library waiting to be re-discovered. That’s amazing.

Secondly, Dave Sim’s Judenhass, a short comic about the Nazi Holocaust, and the history of the hatred of the Jews leading up to it, has been released, for free. (UPDATE: It doesn’t affect anything I’ve written, but Judenhass was first published in 2008, and released into the public domain last week. I didn’t know that when I wrote this. Now I do. So there.) You can get it as a PDF from the link above, or for free from Sequential’s app for Apple devices. Judenhass is a remarkable work, and packs a powerful punch. It made Neil Gaiman cry, apparently, and I did too. I urge you to read it, and have a hanky to hand.

The remarkable thing about Judenhass is that it places the events of the Holocaust (or, to use the Hebrew term he prefers, the Shoah) in historical context, with many quotes from a range of public figures in and around the time of the Shoah, painting an absolutely clear picture of the ambivalence and tacit support of the majority for the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and the indifference to the plight of the refugees. He also traces the roots back further, to Martin Luther and others, and there’s a good set of notes at the back discussing which quotes were and weren’t chosen. (Interestingly, Shakespeare, author of “The Merchant of Venice”, doesn’t get a mention in the comic or the notes.)

As a good illustration of “evil”, this is superbly done, and important. The evil of the Shoah was not carried in isolation by a separate group of Nazis, while we looked on in horror, but was carried by many, many small evils – apathy, unwillingness, indifference – by all of us.

Sim is careful in his use of words. He rejects “Holocaust” for “Shoah”, and “anti-semitism” for “Jew Hatred” (the “Judenhass” of the book’s title). This clarity is vital in dispelling the many little evils around the events of the Shoah, just as it is now, in the half-truths about immigration, trickle-down of wealth, etc. etc. that permeate the news today. And he uses the comic form splendidly to reinforce his point, letting the streams of words and pictures rub up against each other uncomfortably, with the words (and a few “foreground” portraits) being overlaid over images of the prisoners in the camps, often panning out in a gruesome tease, such as the hands grasped around an instrument being revealed to be calipers dragging an emaciated body by the head towards a furnace. In themselves, the images are shocking (I’m crying again now as I type) – set against the words and portraits of the great and good, the effect is incredible.

Sim’s story concludes with the establishment of the state of Israel. History has continued, of course, and, if Sim’s message that we must not forget these events is to be fully digested and applied, then the aggressive behaviour of Israel in Palestine and the Gaza Strip comes to my mind. Brutality gives rise to brutality. The Nazi party found it’s feet in the enforced punitive poverty of the Weimar Republic. The events in Palestine may have roots in the brutality of the Shoah, just as those elsewhere in the Middle East, in Syria, Iraq and Iran, do in decades of Western oppression, violence and brutality. Judenhass is important not just as a study of history, but of the cycles of history, and how we are shaping the future. This lends the book it’s importance, there are still many oppressors and oppressed, and many many turners of blind eyes.

We must not forget. The message of Sim’s book, if not the book itself, must be carried forward. Available as a PDF and (free) in-store purchase for a proprietary Apple product, what chance does Judenhass have of resurfacing after 200 years of lying dormant in a library? Even if the data survived, would it be readable? Even HTML websites from 20 years ago often render poorly on modern browsers. Much is made of the internet’s effect on our individual attention spans, but as a society, as a culture, there are interesting questions to be raised about the ability to remember, and reflect upon, our pasts.

What I’m choosing to take from these stories is this: the good, the evil and the indifferent, run through all of us. Any attempt to separate our capacity for evil onto a subgroup is a Shoah, and cannot result in a good outcome. Sim and Shakespeare, the protagonists of these news items, are both themselves mixtures of good ideals and objectionable opinions, and both, at their best, have addressed the best in us as humans.

What do you choose to see? I’m off for another hanky now!

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