Who owns Auschwitz?

There is something shockingly ambiguous about the jealous way in which survivors insist on their exclusive rights to the Holocaust as intellectual property, as though they’d come into possession of some great and unique secret; as though they were protecting some unheard-of treasure from decay and (especially) from willful damage. Only they are able to guard it from decay, through the strength of their memory. But how are they to respond to the damage wrought by others, to the Holocaust’s appropriation by others, to all the falsifications and sundry manipula­tions, and above all to that most powerful of enemies, the passage of time itself? Furtive glances cling to every line of every book on the Holocaust, to every foot of every film where the Holocaust is mentioned. Is the representation plausible, the history exact? Did we really say that, feel that way? Is that really where the latrine stood, in precisely that corner of the barracks? Were the roll-calls, the hunger, the selections of victims really like that? And so on, and so on. . . . But why are we so keenly interested in all the embarrassing and painful details, rather than just trying to forget them all as soon as possible? It seems that, with the dying-away of the living sensation of the Holocaust, all the unimaginable pain and sorrow live on as a single, unified value–a value to which one not only clings more strongly than to any other, but which one will also see generally recognized and accepted.

And herein lies the ambiguity. For the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid. Thus we immediately got a stylization of the Holocaust, a stylization which has by now grown to nearly unbearable dimensions. The word “Holocaust” is already a stylization, an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like “extermination camp” or “Final Solution.” Nor should it come as any surprise, as more and more is said about the Holocaust, that its reality–the day to day reality of human extermination–increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable.

—Imre Kertész, “Who owns Auschwitz?”, The Yale Journal of Criticism, Johns Hopkins University Press Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 267-272.

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