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A young and rebellious 90-year-old girl

by Gabriele Nissim

Dear Liliana,

the first thing I would like to tell you on your 90th birthday is thank you. Thank you so much. You are a great teacher of remembrance. Remembrance is an art because we not only need to remember, but also to convey a clear and accurate idea that can suggest new behaviours. When you visit schools and let your words be heard, you always send a very clear message. You are, in some ways, surgical. You do not go round and round in circles, you always get to the point.

I must confess something to you. When I heard you speak the first few times I always felt great severity in your presence. You took my breath away, because you never let yourself go to rhetoric of manner and you did not neglect anything. Le me tell you something else: even today, when you take the floor, it seems to me that I hear you talking for the first time, because you never give the idea of repeating a story, it is as if you were telling it from scratch with ever-changing nuances.
When you are with youngsters, I feel like I am listening to Primo Levi, who always said something very definite with great reasoning. “I will tell you the story of Shoah, of the grey area, of indifference not only because I have been there, but because you have to know the limit human condition can reach. You must always grasp all signs and warnings that would bring us back into that scenario”.

You have always tried to convey the message that extreme evil is not outside history, it can always repeat itself. We live on an inclined surface where if we leave space to the force of inertia and gravity without our continuous educational action, we always risk finding ourselves in the abyss.

This is why you have never hesitated to take a stance against stereotypes on migrants, Muslims, on the “last ones”. You have always had a great ability to understand that using the wrong words can cause dehumanisation of the different and thus introduce the dangerous concept that there are first and second-division human beings, a concept that can lead to the worst scenarios.

You understood before many others that today in public language - from political language to everyday use in social media - expressions of contempt for the others are used that could lead to disruption of society. Sick words sooner or later turn into stones and are the prelude of division and intolerance. You are perfectly aware that the language towards Jews had changed before racial laws and if today you leave space to those who love destroying the others with vulgar words and try to create only enemies and oppositions to assert their superiority, you can end up in a dangerous scenario.

You make no difference between anti-Semite who hate Jews and those who use any kind of hatred towards other human beings.

You remind me of the method of American Jew George Steiner, who claimed that survivors who bore terrible scars had only one privilege after Auschwitz: they had to be indelicate, irritating and nonconformist whenever a nationalist, evil and inhuman policy appeared on the scene.
Philosopher and theologian Emil Fackenheim wrote that after Shoah every survivor as well as every one of their descendants had to obey an 11th commandment, which was a sort of divine imperative. Never hide your own Jewishness and revive it everywhere. He claimed that this was the task of Jews to never allow posthumous victory of Nazism. This was a mysterious inner voice that was to mark the destiny of survivors. A sort of pact with those who had not returned.
Hannah Arendt expressed a more secular concept when she claimed that one had to shout aloud that he or she was Jewish to fight Nazism.

It was definitely an important and respectable issue that marked an entire generation and led to so many battles, but George Steiner went even further. He said that that inner voice must have a revolutionary prerogative. When one listens to it deeply, one can only come to a conclusion.
“Our difference is that we proclaim that there is no difference between human beings”. Claiming to be Jewish did not mean building a world apart, but rather shouting out loud when humanity was outraged. The memory of the Holocaust is always disruptive when it questions what exists, when it upsets people’s daily life, when it illuminates evil of the present time that we cannot really grasp. It is a warning to human condition, not a self-defining safe.

David Rousset, tortured and interned in Buchenwald, coined an expression about his condition as a survivor that caused a lot of stir. “My destiny after that experience, which remained attached to my outraged body, is that I have become an expert in the fields. Every time I become aware of a similar situation, I am inclined to react”.
Rousset caused great scandal in the ranks of communists in Paris after the war, because he denounced Stalinist gulags and prison camps. He would not shut up. Like Steiner, he felt he was a sentinel of evil. Becoming a profound witness to Shoah did not make his life easy because they tried to silence him.
I am convinced that many would like you to speak only of the past and to only become an icon of remembrance. They would like you to be compliant with the Senate, a survivor who gives prestige to institutions, who is useful to everyone, who allows saying that today they are all innocent for the barbarity of Nazis.

However, you have the spirit of a rebellious little girl and you do not fit in, like Steiner and Rousset, and when you see migrant camps in Libya or dead refugees at sea, you have no hesitation. You react because you are aware that you would betray your destiny. Remembering and testifying always means thinking again and immediately putting yourself in the shoes of those who suffer. You have seen it first hand and therefore you are immediately empathetic.

You grasped the underlying issue when you had a great intuition and wanted the Holocaust Memorial to bear the word “Indifference”.

Who is guilty in the face of crimes against humanity? Certainly those who have the power and pass unfair laws and want to eliminate the different. These are the executioners.
But there is another category without which executioners could not act. It is the indifferent ones who just watch. They are the true arbiters of situations in every age.
They would have the opportunity to react, to have their voice be heard, to take actions in support of victims, without running too many risks. Every human being without any power and without a specific vocation to heroism or sacrifice always has the chance to be human. And the humanity of each individual, even in the hardest scenarios, can be manifested with small gestures that can upset the plans of executioners. It is those actions that can create unexpected miracles, because there is nothing worse for executioners than feeling their isolation. They feel strong when others remain silent and pretend not to see.

That is why you have argued that the indifferent ones make the difference with their silence.
You have understood more than others, like Primo Levi did, that it is the grey area that makes evil possible, because it is ordinary people, not only fighters or partisans, who can change the course of events through human actions.
And those who have the opportunity and do not do that become responsible for evil as well.

They have made a specific choice: their complicity for their quiet life.

We have discussed the issue of the Righteous many times together. You have rightly observed that the Righteous have been too few and that they must never make us forget the responsibilities of executioners. However, with the writing in the Memorial, which would deserve to bear your signature (I want to propose it to everyone), you have grasped the essential concept of the Righteous: they prove that in every scenario one can still choose solidarity, empathy or indifference.

Evil is not a tsunami, a natural event, something incomprehensible. Evil is always born from decisions and it is always the decisions of other individuals that can stop it. The Righteous have this prerogative that always challenges spectators who watch without reacting: they show that always and everywhere, if they want to, individuals can be arbiters of their own destiny. Everyone can be, in their own small way, a seed of good that can overturn the course of events in an unexpected way.
This is always the only realistic hope to which we must all cling.

With the severity you have, which I have decided to remember with such admiration, in all your speeches to young people, you convey this message: we will remember Shoah only if we can be Righteous in our time.

We are always called not to be indifferent. Otherwise we will only make rhetoric that will make us believe that we are always good and innocent. In your last speeches you reminded me of a philosopher whom I love very much and who left a wonderful diary before she died.
She is Etty Hillesum. She did not hate her persecutors, even though she despised them morally. She said that she pitied them because those who do gratuitous evil not only ruin the lives of others, but also their own existence. They remind me of your words about young Nazis in the camp.

Socrates said that those who hurt others hurt themselves.

He even came to a revolutionary statement that can still make us shiver and that philosopher Agnes Heller chose as the foundation of her ethics. “It is better to be wronged than to hurt others”.
This is another lesson of the Holocaust for the 21st century. Every time we realize in our daily life that we are doing an act of prevarication towards another, we have to hold back at the cost of suffering.

It is better to suffer than to do evil. Of course, we must also resist, but even in our self-defence we must never forget this teaching.

Thank you Liliana.

You are a dear friend who teaches us how to live. This is why you are a rebellious and always present little girl for me. This is true youth.

Translated by Valentina Gianoli

Gabriele Nissim, presidente di Gariwo

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, presidente di Gariwo

10 September 2020

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